Hundreds of Cedar Rapids Community School District residents have called for a public vote on the district’s $26 million bond issue.
More than 500 signed a petition, asking the district to allow a vote on the bond issue, just one phase of the Facilities Master Plan that has already ballooned to $309 million; or $85 million over budget estimates of $224 million when the project was proposed two years ago.
The plan calls for closing eight neighborhood elementary schools and demolishing and replacing 10 others with new “mega-schools.” Three newer schools would be retained under the plan, which affects the entire city.
By indicating their intent to use 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 School Board held a public hearing March 9 on the $26 million bond issue, which will lead to the closure of Truman Elementary, at a cost of $6 million more than initially proposed.
A provision in Iowa law allows voters to petition for submitting the question to an election, giving residents a voice in such a large-scale project that will change Cedar Rapids for generations.
The number of signatures needed is based on voter turnout in the most recent school board election, which, in 2017, was about 3,600 voters.
For the first time, however, Iowa combined its city and school elections in November 2019, resulting in a much higher voter turnout.
The process requires signatures equal to 30 percent of the most recent vote of school officials. For Cedar Rapids in 2019, that number was 10,658, so just under 3,200 signatures were needed within 14 days after the School Board’s public hearing.
In light of the unprecedented series of events related to the pandemic, supporters of a public vote are asking the School Board to reexamine its Facilities Master Plan and to put the bond issue to a vote.
Many residents who signed the petition were still unaware of the extent of the school district’s plans and proponents say a public vote would help in transparency and educating the electorate about the plan.
Those supporters note that the signatures gathered in just a short time represent the concern residents have in closing neighborhood schools. The pandemic itself points to their importance, with some schools on the “closure” list serving as hubs for meals to neighborhood children during this time.
Advocates say the Cedar Rapids School Board should focus its efforts on students, teachers and others affected by the coronavirus pandemic, also known as COVID-19.
Constructing larger schools, where greater numbers of students, teachers and others would be in contact with one another, flies in the face of best practices for the health and well-being of the entire community.