The Gazette Editorial Board
The Iowa City school district is of the state’s fastest-growing. Enrollment has grown by more than 1,000 new students in the past five years.
At the same time, the district’s buildings have been getting older. Repairs and renovations have piled up as the district struggled just to keep pace with the district’s most pressing facilities needs.
By Tuesday’s end, voters in the Iowa City school district will have decided whether or not to allow school leaders to borrow against future tax revenues in order to get a leg up on those needs. We think they should support this proposal.
Critics are correct about a lack of specificity in the district’s plans for the approximately $100 million that would be available by a “yes” vote. But despite some of the shortcomings on information, the revenue purpose statement on Tuesday’s Iowa City school referendum addresses the big-picture infrastructure needs faster and better than other options.
The district certainly is asking constituents to act on a certain amount of trust.
If voters do approve the new RPS, the district must repay that trust by committing to an open process that includes plenty of public input before individual projects are prioritized — at a level of transparency that hasn’t always been evident, especially regarding another issue, the development of a new district diversity policy.
Approving the new RPS would allow the school district to borrow against projected revenues from the Secure an Advanced Vision for Education (SAVE) sales tax, previously known as the School Infrastructure Local Option (SILO) sales tax.
Under the current RPS, set to expire in 2017, the district has only been able to spend revenue as it comes in. About half of the money has gone to pay for new school buildings. Much of the remainder has funded technology upgrades and Family Resource Center programs.
But even though the district has built four new schools since 2005, it still is using dozens of modular classrooms at more than a dozen school buildings.
The new statement would allow the district to borrow against an estimated $100 million in future SAVE revenues for much-needed construction and renovation projects. It is not a new tax.
Nor is it a blank check. Individual projects still would require board for approval in a public meeting.
School officials already have identified some priorities for the revenue: a $90 million repair and renovation backlog, three new elementary schools, a third high school and school expansions (see adjacent list).
However, they wouldn’t be bound to those projects should voters give the green light. That has some district parents concerned.
“I think this vote with this information is asking too much,” says Deb Thornton, acting chair of the People for All PAC, formed in early January by about a dozen current and former district parents.
People for All members say the district has done a poor job of prioritizing sales tax revenue expenditures to date and hasn’t provided enough details about how the money might be used in the future.
“They should have waited until they had good data, good reports, a stronger plan, a more specific plan,” Thornton told us last week. “Something to really follow, versus an idealized wish list.”
Last December, the district did begin a comprehensive facilities review in order to give a classroom-by-classroom inventory of needs. That review was expected to be completed last week with the final report to be delivered to the school board in late March or early April.
Some critics say the district should have waited for those results before putting a new RPS to a vote. In a December editorial last December, we urged the district to push consultants to provide as many findings as possible before the vote and share them with constituents.
That clearly won’t happen. That’s disappointing, but it’s not enough to change our minds about the merit of the proposed new RPS. The huge need for those funds is clear. Going ahead with the vote now will allow the district to start the bidding process and begin construction this summer on some projects that are obvious priorities.
Another concern raised by opponents is that by borrowing future revenues, the district is robbing the ability of future school boards to address other facilities needs that may arise.
“This is money that is intended to last the district for the next 15 years,” Thornton told us. “Fifteen years of tax money that they’re talking about allocating and spending really quickly.”
However, as Superintendent Stephen Murley told us last week, the district is not proposing to fund projects that they wouldn’t otherwise do.
“The projects won’t change, they’re the same projects — whether we do them over a five-year window or a 10-year window,” he said.
“It’s really not an issue of whether or not we are bankrupting the future or taking resources away from future needs, it’s really a question of timeline — now or later.”
Borrowing now will allow the district to catch up faster on major facilities needs while taking advantage of current construction costs and low bond interest rates.
And we can’t help but think that addressing the project backlog much faster than the current pace will help ease tensions in a district where resources for such needs have been too scarce for too long.
As supporters are fond of saying, a child is only a second- or third-grader once. We see no overriding reason to wait on so many critical projects that need to be done — sooner, better than later.
In this case, the benefits of approving a new revenue purpose plan clearly outweigh the risks.
Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org or (319) 398-8262
I.C. DISTRICT’S Expected priorities*
Major renovations and upgrades to older schools
Purchase tracts of land for three new elementary buildings and one new high school
Construction of two new eastside Iowa City elementary schools and one North Liberty elementary school
Addition to Penn Elementary in North Liberty
Addition to North Central Junior High
Construction of a new high school
*Iowa City Community School District, “Overview of the One District Facility Plan”
More details: Visit www.iowacityschools.org, click on the “One community, one district, one plan” icon