In May, Cedar Rapids Community School District administrators told the school board that it was time for district to play catch up.
On Monday night, board members took the first step.
The board approved asking voters for permission to double the school district’s Physical Plant and Equipment Levy, which funds facilities and operations improvements, from 67 cents per $1,000 of taxable valuation to the state-allowed maximum of $1.34 per $1,000 for 10 years beginning July 1, 2015.
Voters also will have to decide whether or not they want to allow the school board to fund up to 20 percent of the levy through an income surtax, a new option for the district. The board would then vote annually at what rate to set the surtax, or whether to use it at all in any given year.
“That provides flexibility and options for future board decisions on a year-to-year basis,” said Superintendent Dave Benson. “The board can use the income tax surcharge component of this to balance interest that we receive on the property tax rate issue. It’s a good option for the board to have.”
But even at the increased rate, which would amount to an additional $6.92 million annually, the district is still short of the $425 million in projects outlined in the district’s facilities master plan, but for the superintendent the increase is a start.
“The (levy) increase will allow us to accelerate our deferred maintenance,” Benson said. “We have many facilities, 30-plus facilities, most of which have deferred maintenance over the years. The benefit of an increase in the (levy) would allow us to address deferred maintenance needs that have accumulated.”
These projects, detailed in the $8.5 million enhanced 10-year facilities plan that administrators hope to execute with the additional dollars, include roof replacements, lighting upgrades and heating, ventilation and air conditioning improvements.
“We only have limited funds,” said Tammy Carter, energy project supervisor for the district. “There’s a lot of projects out there we could pursue with additional funding.”
Many of these projects, such as changing light fixtures, replacing light bulbs and improving doors are all cost-saving measures for the district, Carter said. Upgrading the controls on mechanical equipment and tuck pointing, which involves strengthening building masonry, are two of the projects she said were priorities for the district in part because they contribute to a comfortable learning environment for students.
Kathy Potts, a Cedar Rapids resident and mother of four former district students, agrees that safe learning spaces are important. In an email to The Gazette, however, she also questioned the value of aesthetics in these decisions.
"It doesn't have to be pretty for children to learn. Many elderly people learned just fine in Iowa in one room school houses. How much better do we already have it than they did," Potts wrote. "(The district) need(s) to make sure our children are learning to read. New facilities will not improve Iowa's standing in the nation as a mediocre school system. If we can't afford new lockers, etc. we will just have to make do."
Both Benson and school board member John Laverty, who voted in support of putting the levy increase on the ballot, are optimistic that the community will vote for the measure.
“Cedar Rapids has always been a very supportive community for education and what’s good for our kids and our community,” Laverty said. “This is an investment not just in the school district but in the kids and the future workforce and the job force for our current and potential businesses ... It’s tied into economic growth.”
The levy increase might not be an electoral slam dunk. Potts plans to vote against the measure and expressed displeasure with the district's financial management.
"I believe they have wasted millions of dollars on temporary facilities, offices and the continuing expansion of administrative overhead costs," Potts wrote.
The levy increase, if passed, will make only a slight dent in the district’s facilities master plan. In the meantime, the existing buildings will continue to age and Benson advocated for the community and school board to explore ways to address that reality.
“The cost of maintaining older facilities and keeping them up to (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards, making them comfortable, inviting facilities and just basic things like making sure the roof doesn’t leak, all of that is getting beyond where the budget is,” Laverty said.
One possibility for the district is a bond referendum, and while Benson strongly stated that administrators are not looking at that option, he didn’t rule it out forever.
“I think that’s an appropriate topic for the board of education to consider at a strategic planning session as they’re looking five years in the future,” he said.
Both Benson and Laverty said the answers to some of the district’s facilities predicament may lie in potential housing in areas that have not yet been developed, such as near Highway 100 and Tower Terrace Road.If that leads to increased enrollment, it may be time for the residents to look at changing how they define community schools, Laverty said, especially because some of the costs to operate buildings are fixed regardless of capacity or enrollment.