The western half of the Iowa City school district saw $66.6 million worth of school building projects in the past 10 years, double the $33.4 million spent on the other side of the district, according to a Gazette analysis.
That could give ammunition to people who have argued eastern Iowa City schools have been neglected in recent years.
But $41 million of the west-side total was for the construction of new schools in fast-growing North Liberty and Coralville. The east came out $8 million ahead when subtracting that, with projects like a $4.9 million gym and science classroom addition at South East Junior High and a $1 million classroom addition at Lucas Elementary School.
Funding for construction projects is a divisive topic in the Iowa City school district, which covers Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty, Hills and University Heights. The issue is spurred by booming enrollment, with about 1,000 more students in the district now than in 2007.
There have been claims that eastern Iowa City has been left behind as four new schools were built on the other side of the district in recent years. Many North Liberty and Coralville parents, meanwhile, are pushing for a new high school near them, which has only intensified the debate.
The Gazette examined construction projects costing $10,000 or more from July 2002 through June 2012. It then grouped the projects by the district’s two comprehensive high schools, West High and City High, and the schools that currently feed into them.
Each high school has 11 other schools in its boundaries. Roosevelt Elementary, which closed in May, was not included.
City High and its schools were outspent two-to-one over the 10 years. Also, that feeder system hasn’t had a new school built since 1970. Borlaug Elementary in Coralville and Garner Elementary, Van Allen Elementary and North Central Junior High in North Liberty have all opened since 2005.
Elementary school funding in particular has been in the spotlight. Not counting new schools built in the 10-year period, the west side had $3.8 million more spent on six elementary schools than the east side did for 10 elementary schools.
FEELINGS OF NEGLECT
Iowa City Council member Connie Champion, a school board member in the 1990s, said she’s heard from a lot of people who believe eastern Iowa City has been neglected.
“It is affecting how people feel about the schools, and I think that’s a dangerous situation to get into,” she said.
School board member Tuyet Dorau, however, said the east has seen its fair share of the construction funding, particularly when setting aside the new schools in the west.
“I don’t think $30 some million is neglect,” she said.
City High parent Janet Clark, who is part of a loose coalition of parents speaking out against what they see as a facilities imbalance, said removing new schools from the equation is inappropriate. Also, she said, older schools, which the east side has more of, have more needs than newer buildings.
“There’s a significant quantitative difference between the older facilities and the newer facilities,” like with gym space and lack of air conditioning, she said.
RESPONSE TO GROWTH
School board members interviewed for this story said the four new schools were opened in response to growth in North Liberty and Coralville. Between 2000 and 2010, North Liberty’s population increased 149 percent and Coralville’s 25 percent. Iowa City’s population went up 9 percent.
“They (the east side) haven’t been ignored. They’ve just been addressed in a different fashion: renovation and additions as opposed to a new building,” said school board member Karla Cook, a retired City High teacher.
Population has entered the debate in another way. With 67,862 residents in the 2010 census, Iowa City is by far the largest town in the school district. Coralville is next with 18,907.
It’s been suggested Iowa City residents aren’t receiving a fair return on the property tax dollars they put into the school district’s budget.
“As the largest population center in the district, Iowa City residents contribute a proportionately larger share of the property and sales taxes going to the district, yet in recent years only a fraction of the district’s capital dollars has been invested in Iowa City schools,” Mayor Matt Hayek wrote in an August letter to the school board.
An analysis of tax records kept by the Johnson County Auditor’s Office found that 62 percent of school district’s fiscal 2013 property tax revenue came from Iowa City. Coralville was 17 percent, North Liberty 9 percent, University Heights and Hills 1 percent each and unincorporated areas 10 percent.
Schools in Iowa City accounted for 46 percent of the total spent in the current feeder system over the past 10 years.
School construction projects are funded in three main ways: with voter-approved bond issues, a voter-approved tax levy and revenue from sales taxes.
Van Allen Elementary and North Central Junior High were built with money from a bond issue approved by 71 percent of voters in 2003.
Iowa City retail sales generated nearly $44.4 million in sales tax in fiscal year 2011, the most recent year available from the Iowa Department of Revenue. Coralville was close behind with $43 million, and North Liberty’s total was $4.4 million.
School district Superintendent Stephen Murley wants to start relying on sales tax revenue and bond issues for major renovations and new buildings. The school board this month said it wants to borrow from future sales tax revenue as a way to get more money now. A February vote is expected to seek voter approval for this plan, which could open up $100 million.
North Liberty parent Jen Greer, who has advocated for a new high school, said borrowing the money would be a good way to get funding for projects districtwide, but she wants details before backing the February vote.
“I want to see the plan to see all of the pressing needs in the North Liberty area are on the horizon, including Penn (Elementary), North Central Junior High and the new comprehensive high school,” she said.
School Board President Marla Swesey said the new funding plan would resolve concerns across the district by spending money on existing schools and building new ones.
“I think it will help all those unsettled thoughts in our community and, hopefully, everybody will come together for the betterment of our district,” she said.