Levy increase fails, board makeup remains unchanged in Cedar Rapids

Voters approve Westercamp for a sixth term, but waiting game will continue for building upgrades

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March 28, 2014 | 8:16 pm

The waiting game will continue for building upgrades in the Cedar Rapids Community School District, as voters have rejected a measure to double the district’s Physical Plant and Equipment Levy. The ballot question, which 57 percent of voters opposed, asked residents to raise the rate to $1.34 per $1,000 in taxable valuation, from the current rate of 67 cents per $1,000, for 10 years beginning July 1, 2015.

“I’m disappointed that the measure didn’t receive the necessary votes,” said Superintendent Dave Benson. “It’s always difficult to justify a tax increase. I think we’ll have to examine that closely and discuss our options going forward.”

Additional revenue from the property tax increase would have allowed the district to move forward on an $8.5 million enhanced facilities master plan that includes repairs and maintenance at all district schools. Now that the measure has failed, the district cannot move forward on many of the plan’s projects “because there’s no funding stream,” Benson said.

Cedar Rapids resident Sheila Janda, citing displeasure with a potential rise in property taxes, voted against the levy increase.

“I’m retired and I feel that we’re already taxed enough,” she said. “They’ve had money all these years that they could’ve used for maintenance.”

The makeup of the board will remain unchanged as voters sent Keith Westercamp back for a sixth term on the school board, favoring him over challenger Lawrence Wenclawski in the election’s lone contested race. Westercamp, who garnered 64.78 percent of the vote to Wenclawski’s 33.91 percent, will continue to represent District 3, which includes Hiawatha and Robins.

Westercamp attributed his victory to “hard work” and “the dedicated people” who worked alongside him.

“I just really am glad that I can do the work that I’m doing in the district,” said Westercamp. “I’ve had a history of telling the truth and trying to do the best job I can … I’m sincere, I’m trying to do the best I can and I think that helped me. And I listen. I do a lot of listening.”

Incumbents Nancy Humbles and Gary Anhalt, who both ran unopposed, will retain their seats on the board, with Humbles getting 96.34 percent of the vote and Anhalt with 95.91 percent. According to the Linn County Auditor's unofficial summary, 4,031 votes or 4.7 percent of registered voters cast ballots in Tuesday's Cedar Rapids school board election. Tuesday's totals will remain unofficial until the Friday, Sept. 13 canvass of votes.

“I’m looking forward to cooperating and collaborating with the families and outstanding staff we have in our Cedar Rapids public schools,” said Anhalt, who said he’s most excited about continuing to provide “diverse learning opportunities” for students.

Humbles represents District 2 while Anhalt is an at-large member of the board. It will be the second term for both Humbles and Anhalt, who were first elected in 2009. Their terms, like Westercamp’s, will be four years in length. The three board members will begin their terms on Monday, Sept. 23 during an organizational meeting during which they will all be sworn in.

“I think one of the things I would like to see is better communication with the board and the public,” said Humbles when asked about her priorities for her next term.

Anhalt suggested miscommunication as a possible reason for voters’ rejection of the levy increase, which he called a surprise.

“In the last couple of days then there seemed to be some confusion by people,” he said. “I believe we have the need for the PPEL, the amount that we were asking for, there’s definitely the need for it. The PPEL, that levy (rate) has not changed in 40 years yet our cost of repair and maintenance has certainly has gone up in 40 years … Up until today we haven’t really tried to address that. We were really trying to do more with less.”

Humbles, Westercamp, Anhalt and Superintendent Benson all said that the district community needs to evaluate why the levy increase failed before deciding whether or not to go back to voters with another increase or a renewal at the current rate. The district’s current Physical Plant and Equipment Levy is set to expire on June 30, 2015 and the first opportunity to go back to voters for is Feb. 4, 2014 in a special election, the cost of which Benson said he could not estimate at this time.

"It’s puzzling to me because I worry about the safety of our children in the schools,” Humbles said. We can continue to patch (but) some of the structures need major work … I guess we just need to get better at getting the message out.”

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