|Public input forum at Washington High School, 11/9/2017|
The district's rationale mixes necessity and pragmatism. They cite the need for a total of $241 million dollars of building updates in our current elementaries, while the new schools could be built for pretty much the same amount ($260 million) and could save money on staffing and operating costs. The Physical Plant and Equipment Levy Fund (PPEL) is inadequate to fund needed repairs, and by 2024 the cumulative efforts to patch aging facilities will have exhausted the fund's reserves. Because SAVE money will be available from the State of Iowa beginning in 2020 to supplement the PPEL funds, the district can execute this plan without either a tax increase or a bond issue. Given the district's previous experience closing Polk School, there's also probably something to be said for getting all the pain out of the way at once.
|District chart showing PPEL fund's inability to keep up with maintenance needs|
But react we must, probably. I'm going with the district's numbers on this, because I don't have my own. From 35 years in colleges and universities, I can tell you it's impossible to win an argument with an administration who says financial necessity requires us to do something unpleasant. Where opposing perspectives and alternative plans would emerge is during election campaigns, but remarkably, we've just this fall had elections for the school board and city council in which this city-altering proposal was not discussed.
So we're left trusting (or not) that school officials are acting in good faith and with good judgment. Long-term planning is inevitably risky, because they're based on forecasts that by definition amount to guesswork with varying degrees of certainty. Among the arguable assumptions of the plan or its advocates:
- Building new facilities (the "learning environment") is the most effective use of available money to improve student learning.
- The improved facilities and professional staffing (like full-time librarians) that come with newer schools cannot be achieved in any other way.
- Maintenance needs of schools at the back end of the plan (due for reconstruction or destruction in 2030-2034) will not in the meantime affect the overall cost calculus
- State funding will not appreciably increase anytime soon--OK, that's not really arguable--but we can rely on them maintaining current programs and funding levels.
- The population of Cedar Rapids will continue to sprawl. While young professionals or empty-nesters might be attracted to residences in the city center, we won't see similar shifts among school-age children.
- The assessment of infrastructure needs is accurate, and represents needs that must be immediately addressed. These figures are in no way inflated a la the American Society of Civil Engineers' annual report that the U.S. must spend trillions of dollars to bring its roads and bridges into shape (see Marohn 2011).
- Construction of the new facilities will be of high quality that will last... like some of our oldest schools that have lasted more than 100 years, and not like some of the shoddier stuff that was thrown up in the 1950s and 60s.
- Transportation costs to the district under the plan can be managed, because not many more students will require busing--many parents are already driving their children to school--and energy costs will remain relatively low.
- Less than 25 percent of students currently walk to school, so the impact of larger attendance areas will be small. There is no hope of increasing the percentage of students walking anyway.
- Of the 1200+ students currently choosing to home school or attend out of district, many will be lured back by new facilities with up-to-date features. "People have said to me they chose not to move to Cedar Rapids because they drove up and looked at our schools," Superintendent Brad Buck told the Gazette (Duffy, cited below). [By way of contrast, today's Gazette includes a quote from Coolidge School parent Janelle Lund who argues parents aren't fleeing bad schools, they're fleeing bad test scores: It has nothing to do with how (the schools ) look bad on the outside. It's because the proficiency levels are too low. Of course, test scores are driven not by the quality of the instruction or the building, they're driven by the socio-economic status of the student body. So basically they're fleeing poor people, and they're not the first to do that.]
- Impacts on neighborhood property values are unavoidable if not negligible. Overall impact on assessed value in the city will be negligible.
- Something positive will occur on the sites of the closed schools. Certainly, said one person Thursday night, "we don't want [the properties] to become derelict." We should be encouraged that previously-closed Monroe School, on a block with a large number of cheap apartments in poor condition far from existing schools or employment opportunities, is going to become even more affordable housing.
A word to the wise: The district's information circulated at the public input discussions noted that future investments in middle and high schools will require going to the voters (p. 27). How the matter of the elementary schools is handled will have a significant impact on the public's receptivity to the future middle-high referendum.
Molly Duffy, "C.R. Makes Bold Pitch for Schools to Parents," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 13 November 2017, 17A, 20A
"Public Deserves More Time to Weigh C.R. Schools' Facilities Plan," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 5 November 2013
"Starting a Conversation about Education," Holy Mountain, 16 August 2015