During a community forum on Tuesday night, there was one resounding message to the Cedar Rapids school board about its plans to close or replace most of its elementary schools: “Slow down.”
That statement was made multiple times both by panelists and audience members throughout the CR Schools Facilities Plan Community Conversation hosted by Save CR Heritage. People listed a number of different concerns, including worries about closures having a negative impact on neighborhoods by decreasing walkability, exacerbating existing racial divides and lowering property values.
People also expressed concerns about the loss of historic buildings, the quality and lifespan of new construction, the environmental impact of demolition and construction and worries that the changes won’t address underlying issues that have caused students to leave the district.
According to the Iowa Department of Education, over 1,200 students left Cedar Rapids for neighboring districts through open enrollment during the 2016-2017 school year. Just under 370 entered the district from outside of Cedar Rapids, resulting in a net loss of over 900 students and causing Cedar Rapids schools to miss out on nearly $6 million in state funding. In statements during meetings, members of the facilities master plan committee, which put together the proposed Facilities Master Plan, have suggested that bigger, newer schools, could help to address the loss of students, pointing to the newer facilities in nearby districts.
Audience member Jennifer Hill addressed the panel and spoke to her experience five years ago, when the school district decided to close Polk Elementary School and the Monroe Early Childhood Center. Her kids attended Polk at the time, and her story provided one example of a closure that resulted in a family leaving the district.
“My husband and I worked very, very hard to keep Polk open,” Hill said. “And I think that if you want to know what is going to happen with this plan, then you need to study what happened then.”
She said that their family loves living in Cedar Rapids, but that they were devastated after Polk closed. She said their property value dropped and after a year of sending their kids to Garfield, they enrolled them in the Marion school district.
“We saw the writing on the wall five years ago,” she said.
Ashley Vanorny, who was sworn in to the Cedar Rapids City Council earlier that day, was on the panel and said that many people had expressed concerns about the impact of school closings on neighborhoods while she was canvassing for the November election.
Although members of the planning committee, including three who attended the forum as panelists, cited the need for new buildings in order to incorporate modern technology and modern ways of teaching, Vanorny, who works as an IT support analyst for the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, noted that the university has successfully retrofitted old buildings on campus. She also gently criticized the transparency of the planning efforts.
“Although I appreciate all the time and the effort that was put in leading up to this, there was a transparency and a communication issue. That’s something that the board of education has an onus for,” she said before being interrupted by applause.
She added that the concerns coming from the community were a sign that the board needs to slow down their decision-making process.
“I just say why don’t we slow things down a bit,” she said, “so that maybe we can understand where some of these decisions are coming from and we can all get onboard together.”
Julie Cain, a Washington High School teacher and member of the planning committee, said that although it might seem abrupt, the committee has been meeting for over a year and has studied and deliberated a great deal.
She said that the plan focused on the impact the buildings have on education.
“Our buildings that we have in this city were designed at a time when education was based on a factory model,” she said. “That is not how our world works anymore; it is not how our students learn anymore.”
“Our teachers are putting forth a very valiant effort to do the best they can, but the fact of the matter is that our schools and education centers are not built for education in the 21st century. They are not built in a way that helps us teach students the soft skills that they need to be successful,” Cain added.
But Sylvia Popelka, who taught in Cedar Rapids from 1971 to 2004 and continues to work with students through Kids on Course, disagreed. When she addressed the panel, she said she doubted that people were leaving the schools due to the technologies available or because of the building structures.
“I would certainly like to know what body of research has been used to support the idea that the construction is going to be the determining factor of whether children are effective learners,” she said, to applause.
She also wanted the board to slow down its decision making and instead focus on lobbying the state legislature to protect state funds — much of the plan would currently depend on the extension of a one-cent statewide sales tax, the SAVE (Secure and Advance Vision for Education) Fund.
“Let’s not make a decision yet and instead spend a year in Des Moines and make sure that the rug isn’t pulled out from under us,” she told Little Village. “And then let’s slow down and consider the options. Once these buildings are gone, you can’t get them back. Right now it feels like we’re throwing the baby out with the bath water.”
Ann Cejka, who also addressed the panel, said that she understands the challenge of maintaining historic buildings while needing to remain fiscally responsible with taxpayer money. But she also said she hoped that there was room for compromise and conversation, especially regarding some of the architecturally significant buildings like Harrison, Garfield and Arthur elementary schools.
“We need to ask ourselves, as citizens, we can’t have all of these buildings, so what can we save,” she said.