Community forum will focus on the impact of proposed Cedar Rapids school closures on neighborhoods

Community Conversation on the Cedar Rapids School District Facilities Master Plan

Whipple Auditorium, Cedar Rapids Public Library — Tuesday, Jan. 2 at 6 p.m.

Garfield Elementary School is among the eight Cedar Rapids schools that would be closed under the Facilities Master Plan. — photo by Zak Neumann

A public forum on the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s (CRCSD) plan to close eight elementary schools, and the potential impact of those closings on the city and its neighborhoods, will be held in the Cedar Rapids Public Library’s Whipple Auditorium on Tuesday.

“We’re concerned that there are so many people who don’t really know about the plan,” Cindy Hadish of Save CR Heritage told Little Village. “That’s why we’re having this public forum — to raise awareness, and hopefully to get the school board to pay attention.”

Save CR Heritage, a nonprofit that describes its mission as “preserv[ing] historic properties by developing preservation and reuse strategies,” is one of the organizers of the event. Hadish said that it was originally the demolition of school buildings, which is part of the CRCSD plan, that attracted the group’s attention, but the group’s concerns go well beyond the preservation of historic structures.

“Kids can walk to school right now. That will change under this plan,” Hadish said. “We’ve been hearing from younger families who have kids in school, or have kids that will soon be attending school, who tell us they moved to the neighborhoods they live in because of the schools. And if the neighborhood school goes, they’ll look at moving out of Cedar Rapids.”

“Cedar Rapids will become a less desirable place to live. That should be a concern for everyone.”

Hadish said the school district and the consulting firm it hired to develop the new Facilities Master Plan have been too focused on how to efficiently consolidate elementary schools, and haven’t paid enough attention to bigger issues, such as what happens to a neighborhood when a school closes.

“I live in a neighborhood where a school closed, about five years ago,” Hadish said. “It has impacts they may not have considered.”

Joining Save CR Heritage at the forum will be members of the Cedar Rapids City Council, Save CR Heritage, Corridor Urbanism, the Sierra Club and Save our Cedar Rapids Neighborhoods. Historian Mark Stoffer Hunter will give a presentation, and the forum will be moderated by Coe College professor of political science Bruce Nesmith.

Notably absent will be representatives from the school district and members of the school board.

“It’s disappointing,” Hadish said. “From the beginning, we asked them to be a part of this.”

“We were invited by Cindy Hadish on November 14th to participate in the January forum. The objective of the forum was unclear,” Akwi Nji, CRCSD director of communications, told Little Village in an email. “The invitation came on the heels of several well-attended public input sessions,” Nji noted, in her explanation for why the invitation had been turned down.

The public input sessions involved presentations on the plan, as well as the opportunity for members of the community to submit questions in writing and participate in small discussion groups following the presentations, Nji explained.

“I went to the public input sessions,” Hadish said. “The presentations by the district’s hired consultants had a lot of pretty pictures and charts, but the input was sitting around at these tables, asking questions that really weren’t answered. Then a few of the questions that were written down were read by the district spokeswoman to [CRCSD Superintendent] Brad Buck, and the consultants answered them.”

“It was all carefully choreographed. They want it to look like they are getting public input, when really they’re not. They don’t want a situation where they have to directly answer questions.”

According to Nji, the structure of the two-hour public input meetings allowed “a panel of [Facilities Master Plan Committee] members with the most in-depth knowledge of the academic, fiscal, and community-specific themes to answer the posed questions,” and helped the district “[c]ollect as much information from as many people as possible in a manner which was manageable, civil, and would allow us to compile the information in a way that could inform final decisions.”

Nji said that when the district “graciously declined Ms. Hadish’s invitation,” she suggested that for anyone wishing to comment or raise questions about the plan, “their most effective approach, would be to present their insights and requests for consideration to the Board at the board meetings on December 11, January 8, and/or January 22.”

Hadish said she hopes the forum can lead to a better dialogue and more careful consideration by the school board on the impact of school closings.

“If they want to look at whether a school needs to be closed case-by-case situations, we’d support that,” she said. Hadish said she hoped the board might pause the decision-making process in response to concerns being expressed by members of the public.

The vote on the new Facilities Master Plan is scheduled for the Jan. 22 school board meeting.

“It’s up to the seven members of the school board. They have ultimate control over this,” Hadish said. “Each one should be looking at this carefully.”

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