Panelists: Developers, not students, will win under $220 million Cedar Rapids School District bond issue
By Cindy Hadish/Save CR Heritage
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Tremaine Woods remembers carrying his tuba two blocks from home to McKinley Middle School as a student there.
Now a freshman at Kirkwood Community College and community activist, Woods was among panelists at a community forum hosted by Save CR Heritage to help inform voters about the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s $220 million bond vote.
The major expense in the proposal, expected to go on the Nov. 7 ballot, is a $127 million new middle school that would be built at an undisclosed location, far outside of the city’s core. While it would not be immediate, closing Wilson and Roosevelt middle schools, both in working-class neighborhoods on the west side of Cedar Rapids, is part of the district’s plan.
Woods noted at the Sept. 21, 2023 forum, held at the Cedar Rapids Public Library, that he would have been unable to participate in band and other before- and after-school activities had he been bused, as students would be under the district’s proposal.
Especially with parents working multiple jobs, students also will be at risk of missing school if they can’t walk or be driven there, he said.
“There’s already an issue with hiring bus drivers,” Woods added. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Panelist Maura Pilcher, a member of the Facilities Master Plan task force and president of the Grant Wood Elementary PTA, said Cedar Rapids was previously known as a leader in education.
“Now, rather than lead, we are following what smaller, homogeneous school districts are doing,” she said, “consolidating to new buildings with state of the art athletic complexes. We are Cedar Rapids and we are owed solutions that meet the needs of our community.”
Learning differences covered under ADA have not been addressed under the school district’s plans, Pilcher noted. “Our students are trying hard. Don’t tell them that they can’t learn within their current school.”
While studies show students with lower socioeconomic status struggle in larger schools, as the district is proposing, those studies have been ignored in favor of building larger schools, she added, even though smaller schools allow those students to excel.
Panelist Amanda Halvorson, who taught third grade at Hiawatha and Arthur Elementary schools before recently changing careers, said she especially enjoyed her time at Arthur, which is being combined with Garfield Elementary next year in a much larger school.
“What baffles me is we’re investing so much money in this physical part of education but we’re not focusing on the intangibles, the education that truly goes into the schools,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times I had to buy school supplies or additional materials because there wasn’t enough provided. This plan goes to show how they truly don’t think of the students.”
Panelist Stacie Rae Johnson, who works for a nonprofit and is running for school board, cited the building of Viola Gibson in a previously undeveloped area of Cedar Rapids as a perfect example of a neighborhood needing an anchor before the builders start, similar to what the district has planned for the new middle school.
“To me, we subsidized the developers of that property with the school,” Johnson said, citing the high-end homes that followed.
She noted that her 6-year-old granddaughter would be paying off the debt on the proposed $220 million bond issue until she’s 35 years old.
“I think there’s a lack of transparency, a lack of accountability and a lack of educational equity,” Johnson said.
Save CR Heritage invited School Board members on both sides of the issue to serve on the panel, and while board president David Tominsky initially agreed to participate, he backed out as the board scheduled their own meeting on the same night as the forum.
That meeting was short enough to allow School Board member Dexter Merschbrock to attend, though Tominsky did not show.
Merschbrock ran for his first term on the School Board after the elementary school Facilities Master Plan called for numerous school closures, even under objections from the public.
“Every step of the way, hundreds of people have put their name on a petition saying ‘don’t do this’ or have come and spoke to the (school board) to say ‘don’t do this,'” he said, comparing it to the current petition process that has not been as transparent as it could be.
Merschbrock said he didn’t agree with the School District pushing staff to sign the petition on school time to put the bond referendum on the ballot.
He noted that the “Vote Yes” committee is committed to raising $15,000 and wouldn’t be surprised if they raise $50,000 for a campaign to pass the bond issue.
“Democracy shouldn’t be available for the highest bidder,” Merschbrock said.
He cited more than half of the cost of the $220 million bond issue being the new middle school, even though the district has more than enough capacity for middle school students.
“They want to deliver a new middle school to a neighborhood that probably doesn’t even exist yet,” he said. “They’re asking us to pay for the privilege to build a new middle school.”
Nikki Halvorson, board president of Save CR Heritage, who served as moderator, noted that one point missing from the conversation about changes to the middle and high schools, which would be funded by an increase in property taxes, is the elementary facilities plan.
“The district plans to demolish most of our solid elementary schools and spend $30 million on each new school out of a funding stream called SAVE,” she said. “This isn’t ‘free’ money. It’s your tax dollars. What they neglect to mention is that every time they build a new school, not only is that a waste of solid buildings that end up in the landfill, that is $30 million that could have gone for the upgrades they’re asking you to pay for through property tax increases for the middle schools and high schools.”
The four new elementary schools built so far or in progress will cost more than $100 million, with another estimated price tag of $180 million for six more solid elementary school buildings that will be demolished, with new buildings constructed on those sites.
“Adding the elementary schools together, the district will pay more than $280 million – and likely more with escalating costs of construction – to build these shiny new schools, just to ‘compete’ with neighboring school districts,” Halvorson said, noting the amount is more than the $220 million the district is asking taxpayers to fund.
If the bond is approved, the Cedar Rapids school district’s property tax rate would increase from $14.67 to $17.33 per $1,000 of taxable value. For a homeowner with a home assessed at $200,000, that would be about $1,885 per year, or $157 a month.
She also questioned the rationale behind putting 1,200 middle school students into one building; which is planned not only for the new middle school, but on the site of Taft Middle School. Under “phase 2,” an additional $225 million bond referendum that would need to be approved by voters, Taft would be demolished in order to build a new school on the site. A new roof was just installed at Taft, at a cost of $1.6 million, along with a new roof at Harding, which the district intends to close.
“We want to be clear: Save CR Heritage fully supports our students, teachers and staff, but we believe there is a much better plan that doesn’t involve removing walkable schools and essentially gutting neighborhoods in favor of constructing shiny new mega-schools in wealthier neighborhoods,” Halvorson said. “Who is the real beneficiary of that plan?”
More than a dozen questions were submitted by members of the audience, which numbered around 70 people.
Those included what role school vouchers will play in the schools in core neighborhoods and if anyone knows why the School Board is pushing for the changes to its buildings.
Another audience member noted that the School Board points out that the Cedar Rapids School District has not asked for a property tax increase in 23 years, but they fail to point out that SAVE funding has been available for building projects during some of that time.