Iowa City upgrades schools at less than half the cost of Cedar Rapids plan
Update March 28, 2022: The School Board voted to move forward with plans to build a school to replace Arthur Elementary, close Garfield and either build a new school on the Madison site or possibly renovate Harrison. Dexter Merschbrock, the only board member to vote against the measure, moved to postpone the vote, noting that the agenda did not specify what the board would vote on until several hours before the School Board meeting, giving the public little time to make preparations to attend. Though board member Jen Neumann agreed that the board should be more transparent in offering timely communication, no one seconded Merschbrock’s motion.
Note: The Cedar Rapids School Board will meet at 5:30 p.m. Monday, March 28, 2022, at the Educational Leadership & Support Center, 2500 Edgewood Road NW. School board members can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
By Cindy Hadish/Save CR Heritage
The Cedar Rapids Community School District Board of Education is scheduled to vote Monday, March 28, 2022, on the next phase of its facilities master plan.
A task force that has been meeting since November during a “pause” in the years-long plan has not yet given a recommendation for the next phase, but, according to the school board agenda, a recommendation will be made to open bidding on a new elementary school this spring and a second bidding in the fall for another new elementary school or possibly a renovated school.
The agenda item offers no details on which schools are involved, giving parents, staff and community members no time to react to what will involve school closures and changes regarding where students will attend.
Drafted “supposals” were taken to staff and the community for input, but the meetings were not well-publicized nor well attended. At the two most recent forums, just 14 people attended a meeting at Harrison Elementary, which included several children, and 10 at Garfield Elementary.
Information provided at the meetings suggested the first new elementary school to be built under the plan, West Willow, which replaced the ADA-compliant Coolidge Elementary, cost $21 million, but construction alone was nearly $21.6 million. Fees, including more than $1.5 million to architectural firm OPN, and other costs bring the total closer to $24 million, for the first school only.
OPN, coincidentally, is leading the facilities master plan process, and also is designing the second school, which will replace Jackson Elementary.
Without any vote by district residents as would typically be required in such a large-scale project, School Board members decided in 2018 to close eight elementary schools, build 10 new “mega” schools that would each house 600 students and keep three newer schools.
By using the 1 percent sales tax stream known as “SAVE,” the board circumvented a vote by the public on the measure, normally required in projects of even lesser magnitude.
The task force was told that 600-student schools are best for collaboration between teachers, but other studies have shown that smaller schools are more conducive to increase attendance, academic achievement and a sense of belonging. Conversely, larger schools increase alienation, which can affect confidence, self esteem and responsibility for self direction.
Because all of the SAVE funding will go to the new elementary schools, district officials and OPN representatives have said the community will likely be asked in September to vote on a bond issue that will raise property taxes for needs at middle schools and high schools.
So far, OPN has provided no cost estimates for renovations to the elementary schools, rather than new, larger 600-student schools, but a comparison can be made with buildings in the Iowa City School District.
Century-old elementary school buildings, including Horace Mann, Longfellow and Lincoln have been upgraded in recent years, with additions constructed to provide a new gym, media center, administration office, nursing office and several new classrooms at each.
Horace Mann, for example, cost $11.5 million to completely renovate the interior of the 1917 building and build a new addition, and costs for the other schools were similar, according to Duane Van Hemert, retired Director of Facility Management for the Iowa City School District.
One scenario in Cedar Rapids could involve building a new Arthur Elementary School to replace the older portion of the school, built in 1914-1915. District officials have said the building is “too old” to be renovated. The same is true for Garfield Elementary, built in the same time period. Under the Arthur scenario, Garfield would close and students would attend the new, larger Arthur Elementary.
No plans have been specified for the older buildings, though it was suggested that students could wait outside of Garfield Elementary if they need to be bused to Arthur. The increased cost of busing; the effects on one-parent households in driving their children to school, and the health of students who will no longer be able to walk to school have not been addressed.
Members of the previous task force said they were told that Cedar Rapids — with a population of about 135,000, plus 7,000 in Hiawatha, also part of the school district — could not support its current 21 elementary schools, and needed to consolidate. Yet, Iowa City, with a population of about 74,000, has 21 elementary schools. The Iowa City School District also includes the town of Hills, with a population of about 800, and portions of North Liberty and Coralville, which it shares with the Clear Creek Amana School District.
The Cedar Rapids Community School District is the second largest in Iowa, after Des Moines, while the Iowa City Community School District is the fifth largest in the state.
“We knew we wanted to keep the schools there, because they were important to our community,” said Paul Roesler, who served on the Iowa City School Board when the facilities plan was made. The last of the projects finished this year.
Feedback on the school renovations has been overwhelmingly positive, Roesler said, citing ADA-compliant elevators and playgrounds, energy efficiency and more.
“Everyone was amazed at the transformation,” he said. “Those schools can be there for another 100 years.”