Upgrading recreation equipment and spaces at Mount Vernon Community School District buildings isn’t about play. It’s about PERL.
Come Sept. 10, area voters will see a question on their ballots about whether or not to allow the school board to set a property tax rate of up to 13.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.
It’s the Physical Education and Recreation Levy, and 18 districts throughout the state use it to fund construction and maintenance of district playgrounds and other recreation sites. Community education and other activities also are allowed uses of the levy dollars.
During the 2012 fiscal year, Iowa school districts spent $2.28 million in PERL dollars.
Jeff Berger, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Education, called that figure “low.” He cited the fact that districts can now access dollars from the statewide school infrastructure local-option sales tax to fund buildings and grounds projects as the reason.
“This is a levy that has been fading away slowly,” Berger said.
Going against the trend
Yet Mount Vernon administrators are aiming against the trend. The district already has a Physical Plant and Equipment Levy, which funds purchases and maintenance for district facilities and vehicles. This year, that levy will provide just shy of $451,000 for the district.
“The maintenance and the cost of existing improvement necessary to all those fields and playgrounds and surfaces, those costs have greatly exceeded the annual funding,” said Matt Burke, school board secretary and treasurer for the Mount Vernon schools. “Annual funding cannot at this point in time address the needs of all those playground and outdoor areas.”
Because Mount Vernon’s PPEL rate is locked in through June 30, 2021, Burke said that makes exploring PERL for additional dollars an attractive option.
“Right now, we don’t have a main source of funding for our playgrounds,” he said. “Right now our playgrounds are in good shape, but we need to make sure we maintain them each year. It does take funds from somewhere to do the maintenance on those.”
If a simple majority of Mount Vernon district voters approve, the levy will go into effect beginning on July 1, 2014, and remain in place until voters rescind it. Burke estimated that PERL will provide an additional $34,000 annually for district recreation projects, though there is no schedule for those initiatives at this time. For a Mount Vernon homeowner whose property is valued at $150,000 it means paying an extra $10.70 in taxes each year.
Voters have the potential to make Mount Vernon the second Linn County school district accessing PERL funding. The Linn-Mar Community School District’s school board has set the levy rate at 13.5 cents per $1,000, unchanged since the 2009 fiscal year.
Though the levy was in place before her arrival, Linn-Mar Superintendent Katie Mulholland praised it.
“It’s one of the few levies we can totally control,” she said. “For us, it’s a good option for wherever we can use it and have public access and use of the options, tennis courts and a certain amount of the fields we think that’s good, and what the PERL levy was intended to be used for.”
Linn-Mar has used PERL dollars for tennis courts at Oak Ridge and Excelsior middle schools, elementary school playgrounds and even volunteer support, often in combination with other district revenue such as fundraising proceeds.
“Typically, we find the fundraising gets maxed out between $40,000 and $60,000,” Mulholland said, speaking of efforts at Indian Creek Elementary School.
When it comes to constructing playgrounds, school districts have any number of funding options because Iowa Code does not mandate that schools have the structures.
“They could not have any playground if they wanted to,” Berger said.
Because Iowa Code is vague on playground construction, school districts fund the projects in various ways. The cost of building a new school often includes allocations for athletic fields and play structures, with funding for maintenance and repairs coming from PPEL or PERL.
“I think our take would be having the voters and the local constituents involved in the process is really our bottom line,” Berger said. “The people down there next to the kids need to be making that decision.”
Parent organizations raise money for equipment upgrades or additional play structures, which is what happens in the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids districts. That funding can come from grants, fundraisers or partnerships with local businesses. The result, however, can be a gap in the quality and amount of recreation structures available at schools within the same district.
“Some smaller buildings have lots of playground equipment, some larger ones hardly have any,” said Rob Kleinsmith, manager of buildings and grounds for the Cedar Rapids Community School District, who estimated the cost of building a playground from the ground up to be anywhere from $40,000 to $80,000.
Earlier this spring, representatives from the National Playground Compliance Group — a playground structure and surface manufacturer — audited the district’s play areas. While Kleinsmith did not provide the report, the results were enough to spring some parent groups into action.
“The reasoning behind that is the district will pay to have this material removed from our facility, but they will not give us any money to replace the equipment (at this time),” said Stephanie Cory, parent of a fifth-grader at Pierce Elementary School, who also is the vice president of the building’s PTA. “We are trying to raise between $40,000 and $50,000.”
Parent groups help
Kleinsmith praised local parent organizations for raising money to upgrade their buildings’ playgrounds.
“We’re excited about that,” Kleinsmith said. “It’s great that they’re doing that.”
Cory said the PTA hopes to collect the funds by the end of the end of the impending school year, in order to replace one of the building’s playground structures in time for students to use by the start of the 2014-15 school year.
“To be real honest, as a parent, I’m a little upset that the district brings in a consultant that ultimately sells playground equipment and they’re going to tear it out and it’s up to us to replace it and they’re not going to give us any money,” she said.
The Cedar Rapids Community School District, which does not use PERL but is going to voters in September to double the PPEL rate and bring in an additional $3.46 million annually for building and operations spending, has two versions of 10-year facilities master plan — one if the PPEL increase passes and one if it fails. Neither includes spending for new playground equipment.
“We had $10 million worth of projects and we currently have $5 million for PPEL,” Kleinsmith said. “Keeping the lights on, water in the building, roof replacements (and) making sure the surfaces are safe just took precedent.”