By The Gazette Editorial Board
Without question, the Iowa City school district has pressing infrastructure needs.
Explosive growth in student enrollment has left the district with a growing backlog of building, renovation and maintenance projects.
District officials want voters to sign a broad permission slip that would allow the district to borrow against projected revenues from the Secure an Advanced Vision for Education sales tax, previously known as the School Infrastructure Local Option sales tax.
The district’s current revenue purpose statement for that tax is set to expire in 2017. If voters approve by a simple majority the new statement on Feb. 5, it would take effect immediately and allow the district to borrow against projected revenues until the tax expires in 2029.
That would open up an estimated 100 million new dollars for much-needed construction and renovation projects. District officials say they expect to need about two-thirds of that amount for those projects; the remainder would be available for other needs as they develop.
OK. But more details about the district’s facilities plans and priorities would help voters make an informed decision at the polls. Trouble is, more of such information may not be available until April when a consultant’s report is expected.
Nonetheless, Iowa City’s facilities needs are not going away: In the last five years, the district has grown by more than 1,000 students. That growth is expected to continue at a rate of about 200 new students per year.
Even though the district has built four new schools since 2005, dozens of modular classrooms still are being used at 13 buildings, according to school officials.
The proposed revenue purpose statement doesn’t mention any projects by name. It is not a detailed facilities plan.
Nor is it a blank check, exactly.
School district Superintendent Stephen Murley has mentioned some projects that could be included in the plan, including clearing out a repair and renovation backlog in the district’s older schools and building new elementary schools in Eastern Iowa City, North Liberty and an eventual third comprehensive high school.
If the proposal is approved, the school board still would vote on individual project expenditures in a public meeting and be subject to public hearings.
All the principal and interest borrowed would be paid for by future SAVE revenues — this is not a new tax. And it makes sense for the district takes advantage of low interest rates and protect against construction cost increases.
Accessing future tax moneys now would allow the district to catch up on a growing facilities backlog. Working on multiple projects at once could alleviate concerns of parents wondering when — or if — their children will benefit from construction projects.
There have been a lot of bitter feelings among parents about how the district has allocated resources and prioritized facilities projects in recent years. More details about the district’s comprehensive plan to serve the needs of all students would go a long way in alleviating those concerns and securing voter support.
Last week, a consultant began a comprehensive facilities review that will catalog the district’s needs, classroom by classroom, building by building. That report certainly will serve as the foundation for decisions about how to prioritize projects. However, the final report, carrying a fee of $167,000-plus, isn’t expected until April.
That’s unfortunate timing. School officials, led by the board of education, should push the consultant to provide as many findings as possible before the Feb. 5 election and share them with constituents. If that doesn’t produce results, they’ll need to work even harder on informing voters about this worthy plan to address a huge challenge.
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