Cedar Rapids School Board votes 5-1 to forge ahead with $220 million bond vote
By Cindy Hadish/Save CR Heritage
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — The Cedar Rapids School Board will ask voters to raise their own property taxes to fund a new $127 million school in an undisclosed location and other changes to district facilities, while offering few details about their proposed $220 million bond referendum.
Only board member Dexter Merschbrock voted against the measure, which will go to voters in November if 6,319 signatures of eligible voters are gathered by Sept. 22 — about seven weeks — to place it on the ballot.
Board members Cindy Garlock, Nancy Humbles, Jennifer Borcherding, Marcy Roundtree and president David Tominsky voted in favor of the resolution at the Aug. 7, 2023, special board meeting.
Jennifer Neumann was absent from the meeting, which lasted less than 30 minutes.
Though school board meetings typically start with a public comment period, members of the public were not allowed to address the board.
Despite that, Tominsky said in opening the meeting that “the district is paying attention. We are listening to the concerns and the needs of the community and we will continue to have those conversations.”
He did not address concerns raised by the Cedar Rapids City Council that the plan would eventually lead to the closures of Wilson Middle School and Roosevelt Middle School, both on the west side of the city.
Board member Merschbrock requested more details about the plan and asked if a cost breakdown was available for the public.
Jon Galbraith, the Cedar Rapids School District’s chief operations officer, noted that the proposed new 1200-student middle school, which would be built at the north end of the district at a still unknown site, would cost $106.8 million, including land acquisition.
Galbraith didn’t mention the 20 percent added cost for architect’s fees, furniture, fixtures and equipment and other expenses, bringing the total cost of the new school to more than $127 million. He added that details about the projects were not necessary to include in the ballot language for voters.
“We’ve got to be honest with the community,” Merschbrock said, asking if some of the projects could be completed at less expense. “People really need to know what they’re investing in.”
Borcherding read a statement saying the district was being “fiscally responsible.” Property owners will be asked to raise their own taxes by $2.70 per $1,000 of taxable valuation and again in 2029 for a $225 million bond vote for “phase 2” of the plan.
Roundtree said she spoke with a teacher who had to wear a coat indoors while teaching in the winter, which was among the reasons she voted in favor of the measure. Asked after the meeting which school she referred to, Roundtree would not say.
None of the proposed projects appear to involve upgrades to HVAC systems and Roundtree could not say why Physical Plant and Equipment Levy funds, which taxpayers approved to extend for 10 years in 2014, would not have been used to address such a deficiency.
Following is the language that will appear on the ballot, if sufficient signatures are gathered, followed by the letter from Save CR Heritage sent to the School Board before the meeting.
“Shall the Board of Directors of the Cedar Rapids Community School District in the County of Linn, State of Iowa, be authorized to contract indebtedness and issue General Obligation Bonds in an amount not to exceed $220,000,000 to provide funds to: a) construct, build, furnish, and equip a new Middle School building and acquire and improve the site; b) renovate, remodel, repair, improve, furnish and equip kitchen/café spaces at Kennedy High School building; c) construct, furnish, and equip Career and Technical Education additions to Jefferson, Kennedy, and Washington High School buildings and related remodeling; d) install turf fields and other site improvements at Jefferson, Kennedy, and Washington High School locations; e) construct, build furnish, and equip a gymnasium addition to Metro High School building and related remodeling; and f) construct, furnish and equip an addition to and renovate, remodel, repair, improve, furnish and equip Franklin Middle School building?”
Following is the letter from Save CR Heritage:
Dear Board of Education,
Save Cedar Rapids Heritage fully supports providing our students, teachers and staff with updated facilities, so we urge you to consider a better plan than what is being presented under the bond referendum ballot language tonight.
Though not specified in the ballot language, the bond issue would set in motion the closure of walkable schools, such as Wilson Middle School, which negatively impacts lower socioeconomic families. It would place an undue burden on the backs of taxpayers who will see their neighborhood schools removed and their children bused elsewhere, limiting their ability to participate in extracurricular activities, as wealthier neighborhoods reap the benefits.
Further, we have yet to hear that traffic studies were conducted regarding nearly doubling the number of students at Franklin – a last-minute change never presented to the Facilities Master Plan task force – and its impact on the already congested streets around the school. Nor have we seen evidence that packing 1,200 middle schoolers into one building, as eventually planned at two sites, benefits students.
In speaking to thousands of area residents last month in the two short weeks allowed to collect petitions regarding the $30 million bond issue for Harrison Elementary, it quickly became apparent that the School Board is out of step with the public. Particularly in the Harrison neighborhood, an overwhelming majority of residents voiced their opposition to destroying the architecturally significant school, and that appears to be carrying over to other decisions made by the School Board, including the bond referendum.
Save CR Heritage Board President Nikki Halvorson noted that as more people became aware of the petition drive, volunteers were approached by people eager to sign the petition, local businesses came on board to serve as petition sites and a steady stream of School District voters lined up to sign the petition the day before they were due. “We didn’t run out of people who wanted to sign, or who could sign,” she said. “We ran out of time.”
As board members, you still have time to reconsider the irreversible decision to destroy the iconic Harrison Elementary and to take a step back regarding the bond referendum to truly do what’s best for our students and consider a better plan.
Thank you for your consideration.
Journalist Cindy Hadish, a board member of Save CR Heritage, served on the School District’s Facilities Master Plan task force.