Concerns raised on Iowa City district’s plans for sales tax money

Doubts stem from 2007 tax hike vote

Gregg Hennigan
Published: January 20 2013 | 1:00 pm - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 10:19 am in

Chris Arpey sent a message to the Iowa City school board last week, one the board could not have enjoyed.

Speaking last Saturday at a meeting on a proposed diversity policy that has divided the community, Arpey, an Iowa City parent of a West High student, said he did not trust the board collectively. He cited the uncertainties surrounding the diversity policy and the lack of progress on building a new high school following a 2007 vote to impose an extra sales tax to benefit Johnson County schools.

Arpey said he voted for that tax, but he is against a related measure on the ballot in a Feb. 5 special election that would give the district up to $100 million for building projects.

“If I vote ‘yes’ now, what are you really going to do with the money?” he asked the school board members at the meeting.

Sentiments like that have cast doubt over the prospects of the Feb. 5 election, in which voters are being asked to approve a new revenue purpose statement. That is the document that says how the district’s sales tax money can be spent.

The ballot measure requires 50 percent approval to pass.

The uncertainty comes despite near universal agreement that, with enrollment up more than 1,000 students since 2007, the district needs money for new schools and building additions.

Also in the district’s favor is that the tax is in place until 2029 no matter what, so the Feb. 5 vote is not to impose a new tax. Instead, the district would borrow ahead from future tax revenue so it has the money sooner. Also, the district loses local control over how the money is spent if a new revenue purpose statement, which is frequently abbreviated to RPS, is not approved by 2017.

So what may seem like a slam dunk is anything but, and a lack of trust in the school board and district administrators is cited as a major reason.

School board member Jeff McGinness even asked Superintendent Stephen Murley to see if the election could be postponed, but it’s too late. McGinness said that may also be true of regaining the community’s confidence.

“We may have already lost the trust and can’t get it back,” he said.

The issue of trust already was being mentioned last fall soon after the election was called. Many parents said they wanted more details than the district was providing on how the money would be spent, and a campaign committee working against the RPS vote is making as similar point.

The district has released an outline of what the $100 million could go toward, including three elementary schools, a high school and building additions. But a long-term facilities plan will not be finished before the vote.

Some people say the vote should have waited until that plan was complete. The district has until 2017 to pass a new RPS, but officials say they want the money now to get started on projects this summer and to help with long-term planning.

Sandy DeSchinckel, a Coralville parent to a Kirkwood Elementary School fifth-grader, said not yet moving forward with a third high school, the contentious 2010 redistricting debate and the diversity policy are influencing opinions now. But she said people should set their differences aside and support the RPS, as she is, to benefit the district as a whole.

DIVERSITY DISPUTE

The diversity policy, which has 4-3 support on the board with one vote remaining, has inflamed passions even more. It also has dominated discussion the past month, taking attention away from the special election.

Like the high school issue, the community is split on the diversity policy, with east-siders generally supporting it and west-siders against it.

Opponents say the process to create the policy was exclusive and rushed.

Diversity policy supporters on the school board initially tried to schedule a special meeting to get the policy adopted before Feb. 5, but they pulled back because of public backlash. Speculation persists that the policy is intended, in part, to win votes for the RPS from east-side residents.

In a Dec. 5 email to superintendent Murley, east-side parent Ed Stone, who helped write the diversity policy, warned that “the RPS isn’t doing so well in my neighborhood right now.” He said for it to gain support, an equity policy would need to immediately move high school kids, build east-side elementary schools and renovate older schools.

Despite west-siders’ anger over the diversity policy, the RPS may remain the best chance they have to get a new high school anytime soon. Without the money, the majority of school board members have indicated they’d take funds being reserved for a high school and spend them on elementary schools.

“I would think that the North Liberty people would jump on it too because they would get their new high school faster that way,” school board President Marla Swesey said.

Dan Shaw of Iowa City, a Longfellow Elementary School parent who is on the committee pushing for approval of the RPS, said the doubters he’s spoken with are looking for a firmer commitment on what will happen with the money. He said the district has provided enough information and voting down the RPS would require the district to focus on short-term solutions to overcrowding.

“I personally feel like it’s the only way forward for the district to meet its needs and meet them in time,” he said.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the RPS is not going unquestioned. Murley noted that the Iowa City area has a very involved and well-educated citizenry.

“Literally everything in our community gets parsed down to the periods and commas and everything else,” he said.

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