Cedar Rapids School Board decision on Harrison Elementary called into question
By Cindy Hadish/Save CR Heritage
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — A full house turned out at the Cedar Rapids School Board meeting on Monday, May 8, with many concerned about how the board arrived at its decision to demolish the historic Harrison Elementary School.
With little notice, the Board voted 6-1 at its April 24 meeting to build a new school at the Harrison site, 1310 11th St. NW, with only member Dexter Merschbrock voting against demolition. The vote overturned a task force recommendation to update the school and construct a new addition.
Board members Cindy Garlock, Jennifer Neumann, Nancy Humbles, Jennifer Borcherding, Marcy Roundtree and president David Tominsky voted in favor of tearing down the school, which opened in 1930, and is considered the most architecturally significant elementary school in Cedar Rapids.
With 17 speakers at the May 8 meeting, the board limited speaking time to just three minutes each, vs. the typical five minutes. Several people asked the School Board to adopt the Be SMARTstrategy for gun safety, while 10 people spoke about the board’s decision regarding Harrison.
“The lowest cost option isn’t always the best option,” said Cedar Rapids resident David Maier, referring to what school district officials claimed would be a higher cost to upgrade the school than to demolish the building and construct a new one. “I really think this is a disservice not only to the students, but to the community.”
Sylvia Popelka, a former Harrison teacher, noted that two native bur oaks that survived Iowa’s hurricane-strength derecho in 2020 would likely be cut down at the site, in addition to demolishing the historic school.
“The architecture, the stability of that building, the windows, the wood; all of these things have a sense of history and importance,” she said. “I see that as a great asset, not only to the northwest side, but to our entire city.”
Mary Stubblefield, who has a fifth-grader at Harrison, noted that Harrison was on the cover of Time magazine years ago, bringing national attention to the iconic school.
“When I see a wrong being done, I need to speak up,” Stubblefield said, asking the board to reconsider its decision and adding that she hoped the vote wouldn’t affect the district’s proposed $312 million bond referendum for other school upgrades.
Cedar Rapids City Councilwoman Ashley Vanorny, who served on the 18-member Harrison/Madison task force that spent five months examining upgrading Harrison or building a new school on the Madison site — the only two options given to the committee — said the School District never followed through on her suggestion to communicate with Cedar Rapids officials, who have a recreation center next door to the Harrison building.
Before taking her turn to speak, Vanorny told the School Board she saw a text exchange between two School District officials, who were leading the facilities planning process. One counted how many speakers attended to critique the about-face of the plans, and then texted the other: “thank god they only get 3 minutes not 5,” she told the board.
Vanorny also cited the architectural firm leading the school’s facilities master plan process, who, at one meeting, asked, “why are we calling these buildings historic? They’re just old buildings.”
“You can do better,” she told the School Board.
Maura Pilcher, who also served on the task force, said the School Board didn’t follow Iowa code by voting April 24 on the Harrison plan, which was listed on the agenda only as an “update.”
Pilcher also noted that the architectural firm hired by the district to assess Harrison did not appear at the last board meeting and that the plans drawn up by the firm to renovate Harrison were not shown in an open way to residents taking the survey.
“We did discuss equity at length,” she said, of the perception that Harrison and Madison students wouldn’t be in a state-of-the art building, as other new elementary schools are being built throughout the city, even though the large Harrison addition would have meant the majority of classroom space would be new.
Pilcher added that, once historic elements are salvaged from Harrison, there would only be a $700,000 difference in upgrading Harrison vs. demolishing it and constructing a new building, in what will likely be a $30 million project.
Last month, the School Board approved investing $600,000 in the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance building, where the district’s new high school magnet program will be located. Merschbrock voted against that funding, in a building the district doesn’t own. Neumann, who is married to Doug Neumann, executive director of the Metro Alliance, abstained from voting.
The school district also will pay more than $8,300 per month for leasing a portion of the downtown building, 501 First St. SE, pay half of utility costs and security upgrades and provide an employee to staff the front desk during business hours.
Greg Happel, a lifelong resident of Cedar Rapids, asked for the statistical basis of the “survey” conducted by the district, which did not include the option of demolishing Harrison.
He also pointed to the new buildings being constructed to replace Cedar Rapids elementary schools.
“To me, it looks more like a prison than a school,” Happel said of the building that replaced Jackson Elementary.
Others cited the School Board’s lack of transparency in its decision-making process.
Joanie McMahon, a board member of Save Cedar Rapids Heritage, asked the School Board to reconsider its decision to demolish Harrison and read a letter from the nonprofit.
See the full statement from Save CR Heritage:
“Save CR Heritage often hears from people lamenting the loss of Union Station in downtown Cedar Rapids. Imagine what could have been, had that iconic building not been demolished to make way for what was then considered “progress.”
Once a building of that stature is gone, it can never be replaced. The current Harrison Elementary was built after the previous school was destroyed by fire. The grand structure was constructed to signal that Northwest Cedar Rapids deserved an awe-inspiring symbol of resilience, crafted with materials designed to last for generations.
This time there is no fire. The future of Harrison Elementary is in your hands. If updated, the building could easily last another 100 years, if not longer, compared to the much shorter lifespan of modern construction materials. Basing the decision on fiscal responsibility alone, updating Harrison would save taxpayer dollars in the long run, as a new building will need to be replaced before an updated Harrison would.
Suddenly providing cost estimates at the last School Board meeting for the demolition of Harrison and a new building on its site – figures never presented to the task force, at public input sessions, nor in the “survey” – comes across as deceptive and underhanded at a time when public trust is needed for the upcoming school bond referendum.
We believe our students deserve the best and have faith that the architectural firm hired by the district would achieve that with their plans to upgrade Harrison. Your own website quotes the district’s Matt Dunbar, who stated: “There have been factors over the years such as enrollment shifts and economic recessions that have played a role in CRCSD repurposing or selling buildings, but very few school buildings have been torn down. The schools have been repurposed for good within the community.”
If you still believe there is no alternative to a new school, please let Harrison go to an entity that will take proper care of the building and appreciate it for its value to the Northwest community. While there will never be another Union Station, we can learn from the past and prevent similar losses in the future, starting with Harrison Elementary.”
Journalist Cindy Hadish, a board member of Save CR Heritage, served on the School District’s Harrison/Madison task force.
“Vanorny also cited the architectural firm leading the school’s facilities master plan process, who, at one meeting, asked, ‘why are we calling these buildings historic? They’re just old buildings,’ ” Wouldn’t an architectural firm’s opinion on replacing a building be biased? In any case, the architectural firm would probably feel an obligation to “replace” Brucemore, because it’s an “old building.” What about other “old buildings” like the Veterans Memorial Building on the island? How about the Grant Wood studio or Czech Village? Shall we tear down the Islamic Center? Cedar Rapids seems to be decidedly biased against preserving history.
Yes, the firm’s comment spoke volumes. This is the same firm the School District hired to determine the costs of updating Wilson vs. demolition/building new and also the same firm the district hired to design the first three new elementary schools. No conflict of interest there. You do have to wonder if the School Board has ever done business in City Hall, attended performances at the Paramount or perhaps even owns a high-tech business in the historic Cherry Building. Yet, they don’t appear to understand that older buildings can be updated and the value in keeping them.