Plan for the future of Cedar Rapids schools calls for closure of eight elementary schools

Arthur Elementary School in Cedar Rapids is among the 13 being considered for replacement. — photo by Lauren Shotwell

The Cedar Rapids Community School District (CRCSD) is considering closing eight elementary schools and replacing the buildings of almost all the remaining 13 elementary schools, according to a presentation on the district’s new Facilities Master Plan at the CRCSD Board of Education meeting on Monday. Although the board won’t vote on adopting the plan until December, the main questions left to be resolved appear to be the size of the 13 elementary schools, and how the district’s students will be divided among them.

The Cedar Rapids schools that would be closed under the plan are Truman, Madison, Taylor, Van Buren, Grant Wood, Garfield and Kenwood. Nixon in Hiawatha would also be closed.

Rob Schwarz of RSP and Associates, a Kansas City-based consulting firm the district hired to draft the new Facilities Master Plan, said the reasons for closing the schools are “bigger than just money, or bigger than the condition of the buildings.” His presentation to the board, however, just focused on money.

According to Schwarz, if the estimated cost of renovating an existing school building is 50 percent or more of the estimated cost of constructing a new building, it is more efficient to replace the school. The printed report that accompanied the presentation states that 70 percent of people responding to a December survey on the master plan agreed with this. But the report also states only 11 percent of people who received the survey form returned it, and more than half of those who did respond indicated they didn’t live in the school district. (Why people who don’t live in the district were included in the survey was not explained.)

Whether the district would save money by replacing the existing buildings depends on which estimates for cost of construction of the new buildings are used. The reports estimates that needed renovations to the existing school buildings would cost $256,796,136. The estimated costs of the new buildings are less precise, ranging from $200,000,000 to $260,000,000.

Schwarz also emphasized the savings in operating costs that would result from reducing the number of elementary schools from 21 to 13. The report only examines operating costs in two categories: essential staff (which does not include teachers) and utilities and inspections. According to the report, the 13 school model would save the district $2,871,730 annually. All the savings come from reductions in essential staff costs, with the biggest savings being on costs associated with principals. The costs associated with utilities and inspections would actually increase by $297,635 a year.

But critics of the plan, like Cindy Hadish of the nonprofit Save CR Heritage, point to nonmonetary costs not covered by either Schwarz’s presentation or the report. Writing in July on the historic preservation group’s website, Hadish said she was concerned that the only options the school board seemed to considering involved new buildings and the consolidation of schools.

“Not only do our older buildings have character that cannot be duplicated, the schools were built to last, so a question arises as to how much ‘savings’ will be realized in constructing new schools,” Hadish wrote.

But Save CR Heritage, which is dedicated to raising awareness of the value of historic properties, sees this as more than a preservation issue.

This is about our neighborhoods.

Taking away these smaller schools, many of which are in core neighborhoods where affordable housing exists, will lead to deterioration of those areas and destroy the fabric of our neighborhoods.

Following Schwarz’s presentation, CRCSD Superintendent Brad Buck said, “We are listening to community feedback.” But Buck did admit there had been problems in collecting that feedback. He said the results of the December survey weren’t satisfactory, because the survey was “too complicated.” He also described a survey conducted in April as unsatisfactory. “We received feedback that people felt we were trying to lead them in a direction [with that survey],” Buck said. “The intent wasn’t to lead in a direction.”

Buck also referred to feedback from one of the meetings of the Master Facilities Committee, an advisory committee of 85 volunteers working with the school board and RSP and Associates. “People felt they weren’t given a variety of options,” Buck said.

Schwarz said there would be “three more public inputs,” before the board votes in December. “We’re working with district administration on what those inputs could look like. They’re going to be a little different, I imagine, from the previous six inputs.”

Exactly what constitutes an “input,” if it is another survey or a public meeting, was not explained.

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