Time to speak up: Cedar Rapids school district holds three meetings this week on elementary school plans

Cedar Rapids Schools Facilities Master Plan Public Forums

Jefferson High School band room — Monday, Nov. 6 at 6 p.m.
Kennedy High School band room — Wednesday, Nov. 8 at 6 p.m.
Washington High School cafeteria — Thursday, Nov. 9 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

The Cedar Rapids Community School District is holding three public input sessions gathering feedback on its Facilities Master Plan — which includes plans to close eight elementary schools and rebuild nine, at an estimated cost of $216 million over 15 years.

The two-hour meetings will each start at 6 p.m., with the first meeting on Monday in the Jefferson High School band room, a second on Wednesday in the Kennedy High School band room and the last on Thursday in the Washington High School cafeteria. According to the district website, child care will be provided at each public forum.

The session will start off with a presentation by RSP and Associates, the Kansas City-based consulting firm hired to draft the plan, about the process that has led up to this point. Superintendent Brad Buck will speak, then attendees will break off into groups to discuss the plan and develop questions. Each group will be able to pose one question to a panel.

The master plan, the details of which were first announced publicly in September, will be finalized and submitted to the Cedar Rapids school board on Dec. 11. The school board will hold a public meeting on the plan on Jan. 8 and then vote on it on Jan. 22. The plan will not be funded by a bond, which would give the public an opportunity to vote on it directly, but will instead be paid for through the SAVE (Secure an Advanced Vision for Education) Fund, a one-cent statewide sales tax. The tax will expire in 2029 unless the Iowa Legislature decides to extend it in the 2018 session.

According to a statement from the district, the SAVE Fund “is the District’s first option because it provides for our defined Facilities Master Plan needs for elementary schools without an increase in local property taxes. SAVE funding is only an option if the legislature approves a 20 year extension of SAVE funding to the year 2049. A bond issue would be less attractive to the District due to the property tax impact of using this kind of funding.”

The plan has been criticized for not providing enough time for the public to submit feedback, including in a staff editorial published by the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “A month straddling the holiday season provides too little time to explain details and explore effects, both intended and unintended,” the editorial board noted, adding, “Given the plan’s 15-year time-frame, we see no reason to hurry and every reason to make sure an informed public has had its full say.”

However, Akwi Nji, the district’s communications director, said the district has made an effort to involve the community from the beginning, with efforts over the past year including surveys and a comment section on the district website.

“We’ve been asking people to share with us their insights and concerns as we are developing our plan rather than afterward when the plan is already developed,” Nji said. “We’re talking about inviting the community to the conversation in a way that people are probably unfamiliar with.”

She said the community will have further opportunities to give feedback after a plan is passed to decide how that plan is carried out.

“There will be a second phase when we invite neighborhoods to share with us what they envision for their families, based on their experiences,” Nji said.

Decisions about what to do with closed schools will be made in conjunction with the city and community.

“These kinds of actions have been taken in the past and we don’t see boarded up schools littering our community, as people are concerned might happen,” Nji said.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of the story incorrectly identified the location of RSP and Associates, they are a Kansas City-based company.

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