Cedar Rapids school board approves spending $26 million to replace Jackson Elementary, as part of its Facilities Master Plan

At a Sept. 25 open house at NewBo City Market, individuals were able to offer their feedback on the possible look of Coolidge Elementary, one of 10 schools that will be torn down and replaced. Construction on the school is expected to begin spring 2020. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

The Cedar Rapids school board approved nearly $26 million in bonds for the construction of a new elementary school that will replace Jackson Elementary, as part of the Cedar Rapids Community School District (CRCSD) Facilities Master Plan.

Jackson is one of three elementary schools part of the plan’s first phase, along with Coolidge and Truman. Construction on the new Coolidge is expected to begin in the spring of 2020, with a new school opening in 2021 and the new Jackson opening in 2022. Once those schools are rebuilt and opened, the district plans to close and repurpose Truman.

The Facilities Master Plan was unanimously approved by the school board in January 2018 and is expected to take 20 to 25 years to complete. The focus is on making the facilities safer, ADA compliant and improving the learning experience for both teachers and students.

Since the plan was greenlit in January 2018, cost has increased by $85 million, going from $224 million to $309 million due to inflation and construction costs. The funding for the plan comes from Iowa’s Secure and Advanced Vision for Education (SAVE), and there are no planned tax increases for the plan’s implementation.

The plan identifies three categories for Cedar Rapids’ elementary schools: closed, renovated, and torn down and replaced.

Ten will be torn down and replaced: Arthur, Cleveland, Coolidge, Erskine, Harrison, Hoover, Jackson, Johnson, Pierce and Wright. Three — Grant, Hiawatha and Viola Gibson — will be renovated. Eight will be closed: Garfield, Grant Wood, Kenwood Leadership Academy, Madison, Nixon, Taylor, Truman and Van Buren.

There are no plans to demolish Truman or any other of the closed-down schools, interim Superintendent Noreen Bush said during the board’s work session on Monday. Bush, who accepted the role of superintendent last month, will officially take on the title in July.

Originally, there was a pause built into the plan at the end of the first phase, but Bush said that pause should come sooner. There needs to be an emphasis on making sure “we have a process that’s really transparent to the community,” she said.

“That pause process … can’t really wait until after the Jackson build,” Bush said. “It really needs to start this spring [to] get input from our community as the work moves forward. … That pause process would be an ongoing reflective process.”

Despite some of the concerns that have been raised about the plan over the years — including lack of transparency, concern about historic buildings preservation and increased cost — the eight people who spoke during the public hearing voiced support for the plan.

“With the Facilities Master Plan and the process that followed, the board was bold and proactive in planning for our future,” Jackson Elementary principal Nick Duffy said. “This plan addresses not only inequity in facilities but allows for streamlined responsive programming for all kids.”

Rachel Klosak, president of Jackson’s parent-teacher association, also mentioned how improved facilities would bring a “vast benefit” and “foster an environment that encourages students to be the very best they can be.”

“Halting or prolonging the process at the point to go to a public vote would be a detriment to our kids, as well as the budget,” Klosak added. “We cannot divert funds from the budget — from our kids — in order to go to a vote.”

The vote Klosak referred to is an effort by some residents and community groups to get the bond issue on a public ballot. They are currently working to gather 3,000 signatures on their petition by March 20.

The majority of our neighborhood elementary schools (like Harrison) are at risk of demolition or closure. If you'd like…

Posted by Save CR Heritage on Friday, February 28, 2020

Out of the board’s seven members, only Dexter Merschbrock voted against issuing the bonds. Merschbrock campaigned against the facilities master plan during last year’s school board election.

“I am very supportive of investing in our facilities,” Merschbrock said before his vote. “I just want to make sure that we do it the right way and take into account the entire community’s views on that.

“The reason I’m hesitant to move forward with the plan in this case, and in general, is that it’s unfortunate that the facilities plan picks winners and losers between neighborhoods.”

The board’s remaining six members expressed their support prior to the vote.

“It’s about our students, it’s about our families, it’s about our teachers,” board president Nancy Humbles said. “This is good for our community. I supported it in 2018 when I voted, and I’m supporting it again, too.”

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