Voters in the November election will decide between five candidates for two open at-large seats on the Cedar Rapids Community School District (CRCSD) Board. The seat in District 4 will also be on the ballot.
Three of the people running for the at-large seats, and the candidate challenging the incumbent in District 4, cited the school district’s Facilities Master Plan as a factor in their decision to run. The plan, approved unanimously by the board in January 2018, makes major changes to Cedar Rapids schools.
The plans will close eight elementary schools — Garfield, Grant Wood, Kenwood, Madison, Nixon, Taylor, Truman and Van Buren — over the next two decades. Ten schools will be torn down and replaced, and three existing schools — Grant, Hiawatha and Viola Gibson — will be renovated. Harrison Elementary School will be assessed for possible renovation.
According to Brad Buck, the CRCSD superintendent who oversaw the creation of the plan, and the board members who supported it, the Facilities Master Plan will address long-term needs of the school district and replace the current network of neighborhood elementary schools with a more efficient system.
The plan received pushback from many Cedar Rapidians, who objected to the shuttering and potential demolition of historic school buildings, the diminished opportunities for kids to walk to schools and the impact the school closures will have the character of the neighborhoods in which they’re located.
Buck, who left Cedar Rapids at the end of the 2018-19 school year to become superintendent of schools in Waukee, and the school district were also criticized for moving forward too quickly with the plan and not paying enough attention to public concerns. Buck and CRCSD rejected those concerns; they pointed to the several public input session held, starting in December 2016.
There has been further criticism of the plan since its approval, because its projected cost has increased.
November will see a change in how members of the school board are elected, with voting for candidates happening during the same election in which voters will choose members of the Cedar Rapids City Council, instead of voting for them in a separate September election.
School boards in Iowa are nonpartisan, so candidates do not list their party affiliations.
Jen Neumann is a partner at marketing firm de Novo, where she’s in charge of business development and is a creative director.
Speaking to the Gazette, Neumann described herself as “a Cedar Rapids fan girl — I love our school district, I love our community and I really believe in our school system.”
Neumann wants to bring an “innovative, collaborative and caring approach” to the position, just as she does in her volunteer work.
“I stand for quality education, and that begins with supporting our quality teachers, ensuring that we advocate for funding at the state level, collaborating with our community partners, and innovative thinking to help every child find a path to success,” she said in a post on campaign’s Facebook page.
Retired teacher and community activist Cindy Garlock believes that “public education provides the foundation for a strong community.” Garlock taught science for 33 years at three schools within the district.
In a July statement announcing her candidacy, Garlock said she wants to ensure the district’s “history of valuing and investing in public education continues,” and said her background as an educator would make her an effective “voice for students and families” as the district searches for a new superintendent and implements the Facilities Master Plan.
“In order for students to achieve success, there must be a commitment to providing modern facilities, adequate funding and a high quality staff,” Garlock said in her statement. “The Cedar Rapids School District has a long history of providing award winning education.”
Maurice Davis is a program coordinator at Jane Boyd Community House, a Cedar Rapids nonprofit focused on supporting small business owners and entrepreneurs. Davis is on the board of Families Helping Families of Iowa and the African American Museum of Iowa.
Davis lists as one of his top priorities addressing the achievement gap between white students and students of color. He’s also said he wants to bring attention to opportunities for high school graduates other than going to a four-year college.
“We have an opportunity to shift the course of education in CR,” Davis said in a Facebook post. “Our kids deserve to have the best education possible. It’s our job to prepare and support them to solve the problems of tomorrow.”
Janelle Lund and her husband, who have two daughters at Coolidge Elementary, have both been vocal and passionate about the Facilities Master Plan. Lund told Little Village the lack of transparency with the plan is a major reason why she is running.
Lund also wants to focus on policy that increases support for both teachers and students, especially in light of large class sizes that schools are seeing.
“I want to change how the whole board is run,” Lund said. “There’s no real interaction with the board members and the community, and there should be more to that.”
Joseph Miller has five of six children attending school in the district. The Cedar Rapids attorney currently serves on the board of trustees of the Cedar Rapids Community Schools Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the city’s schools.
Miller told Little Village that it’s a “critical time for the school district.” He has made it a priority to find a superintendent who can commit to the position long-term and has an “inclusive and innovative vision for the school district.” Miller also mentioned the importance of continuously reviewing the Facilities Master Plan.
“One of my big goals is to be a listener and a collaborator and to always keep the focus on the children and their families,” Miller said. “One of the things that has the greatest impact on the success of children and their families is the happiness of our teachers. Those things go hand in hand.”
Incumbent Rafael Jacobo is running to represent District 4 for another four years. He was first elected to the board in 2015.
Jacobo is a business analyst with Verizon Wireless. He has two children currently enrolled in district schools, and his oldest son graduated from Washington High School in May. He told the Gazette his son’s graduation made him think about the impact the board’s decisions has on students.
“In the last four years (on the board), I was part of something that impacted lots of kids,” Jacobo said. “It’s about those kids and the people behind those kids — their family, relatives, mentors, in some cases guardians. I recognize there is a lot more to each and every one of those kids who walks across the stage.”
Jacobo voted for the Facilities Master Plan, and says he stands by that vote.
“I’m very happy we built into it that the plan be undertaken in phases. It allows time to stop,” he told the Gazette’s Molly Duffy. He added that he was currently undecided how the board should proceed after the first phase of the plan — involving the closure of Truman and the opening of two new schools — is completed.
Dexter Merschbrock said the board’s behavior during its consideration of the Facilities Master Plan was one main reasons he decided to run. Merschbrock, a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, explained a large factor in the decision he and his family made to move to Cedar Rapids in 2016 was the proximity of their new home to Grant Wood Elementary. That school is among the eight scheduled to close.
Merschbrock told Little Village there was a “lack of accountability on the school board’s part” regarding how the plan was handled. Merschbrock and others unsuccessfully requested a delay of the final vote, despite submitting a petition with more than 600 signatures.
“When I’m on the school board, I will listen to the voices of our neighborhoods,” Merschbrock said in a Facebook post. “I support reinvesting in and renovating our neighborhood schools, so every child has a great school nearby to call home — not closing them down.”
The Cedar Rapids elections will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 5. In-person absentee voting begins on Monday, Oct. 7.