As its Facilities Master Plan moves forward, the Cedar Rapids Community School District (CRCSD) is trying to get “as much input as possible,” interim superintendent Noreen Bush told Little Village. Critics of the plan have repeatedly charged the district with a lack of transparency during the three years since the planning process began.
Two feedback sessions last month focused on Coolidge Elementary, the first of 10 schools that will be torn down and replaced. At the open houses, there were photos of elementary schools built within the last three years in Illinois and Wisconsin that people were able to comment on and visualize as possibilities for the new school.
Coolidge Elementary is one of three schools part of the plan’s first phase. Jackson, which will be torn down and replaced, and Truman, which will be shut down, are the other two schools.
“Coolidge is our greatest needs school when it comes to the state of the facility itself,” CRCSD communications director Akwi Nji said.
The school is safe for students, but it’s not a “best practice situation,” Bush added. Bush’s interim superintendent contract was extended in August until June 2021.
“To invest in what really needs to happen, we’re talking rebuilding a foundation, reconstructing what we want the opportunity to be for better collaboration and better space,” Bush said. “[It’s] more expensive to reconstruct and add on to that building than to really just start from new from an imagination opportunity.”
The Facilities Master Plan was unanimously approved by the school board in January 2018. The plan has three categories for the Cedar Rapids elementary schools: closed, renovated, and torn down and replaced. There will be a new school project started every year over the next 15 to 20 years.
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.
Construction on the new Coolidge is expected to begin in the spring of 2020, and the school is expected to be open for the 2021 school year. Once Coolidge’s construction begins, the school district will begin rebuilding Jackson.
Along the way, there will be more open houses, Bush said.
“Even though you could say [Coolidge and Jackson are] only a couple of miles away from each other, it’s a different group of families, and we want to make sure those voices are at the table,” Bush said.
There’s also a pause built into the plan after five years, which is when the first phase of the plan is expected to wrap up. Bush said this pause will be an opportunity to hear from the community, discuss the first phase and look at the next steps.
The plan continues to receive pushback from the community, school board candidates and Save CR Heritage, a group dedicated to preserving historic buildings. Save CR Heritage hosted a bus tour led by Cedar Rapids historian Mark Stoffer Hunter highlighting the historic qualities that will be lost if certain schools, like Arthur, are demolished.
Community members asked the district to “slow down” the process in January 2018, citing the lack of transparency and concerns about the destruction of historic buildings. Dexter Merschbrock, who is running against incumbent Rafael Jacobo to represent District 4, was among the individuals who circulated a petition (which got more than 600 signatures) asking for a delay in the vote.
At-large school board candidate Janelle Lund, who has two daughters attending Coolidge, said the biggest issue for her has been the lack of transparency and information. She also said she has concerns about how the costs of the plan are increasing.
When the plan was approved, it had an estimated cost of $224 million. Since then, however, the cost has already increased by $10 million for Coolidge and Jackson. The district is using Iowa’s Secure and Advanced Vision for Education (SAVE) as the funding source for the plan. By using SAVE, the board did not have to get the public’s approval for the project.
“This is the first time in the entire history of Cedar Rapids schools, going way back to 1855, that the public has not had a chance to have a say, like a formal vote, on what is built,” Stoffer Hunter said.
District 4 incumbent Rafael Jacobo, who is running to keep his seat, told the Gazette he stands by his vote for the Facilities Master Plan.
At-large candidate Cindy Garlock also expressed her support for the plan at a Sept. 26 school board candidate forum hosted by Corridor Area Leadership Live (CALL).
“We need to make sure that we are optimizing the educational experience that kids have in our district,” Garlock said at The Early Bird, where the forum was held. “I believe the facilities plan is a sound plan. It has built-in places where we stop and reassess.”
Garlock, who was a teacher for 33 years, talked about her experience teaching biology and having to decide whether or not she was going to do certain labs because her classroom had more students than the classroom was built for.
“You can talk to any number of teachers who are faced every day with instructional decisions,” Garlock said. “Our teachers should not have to make those decisions, so yes, we need to address our facilities.”