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School board green lights $190 million to complete FMP

It’s a GO!

By Janet Nolte
North Liberty Leader
IOWA CITY– It’s official: Next September, Iowa City school district voters will get the chance to decide if they want to commit nearly $190 million toward a general obligation (GO) bond to complete the 10-year facilities master plan (FMP) initiated in 2012.
At a special meeting held Tuesday, Jan. 31, the school board directors voted 5-2 to go “all in” on a bond proposal that would ensure funding for ongoing and future building upgrades, additions and new construction projects throughout the district.
Passage of the bond– more than twice that of Ankeny’s record-setting $83 million bond passed in 2007– will require 60 percent approval from voters. District leaders estimate the measure will require an incremental, net tax rate increase of $1.62 per $1,000 property valuation over five years, or $14.12 per month more in property taxes for a $200,000 home. According to data provided by the school district, Iowa City’s is the fifth largest district in the state and has the lowest property tax rate among the top 10 school systems and will likely remain so even after levy kicks in.
In favor of the bond proposal were Board President Chris Lynch, Vice President LaTasha DeLoach, and directors Paul Roesler, Brian Kirschling and Lori Roetlin, whiledirectors Chris Liebig and Phil Hemingway voted against the bond package in its current form. They expressed concerns about the “sheer size” of the funding request, a lack of serious commitment to career and technical education and political feasibility of coupling the closure of one school with plans to build several others.
“Asking people for hundreds of millions of dollars while you’re throwing away a $10-12 million asset to me is not the way you want to go asking for money,” said Liebig in reference to the planned closure of “old” Hoover elementary. “Not to mention that it’s a very good sized school that can hold a lot of students.”
In a letter submitted to fellow board members on the day of the meeting, Liebig argued for a significantly smaller bond proposal that would prioritize the most necessary projects and those that can be completed in the short term. Based on the new attendance zones and projected growth in the North Corridor, his list of such projects included the new elementary school to be built on the recently acquired land along Mehaffey Bridge Road and the renovation and expansion of North Central Junior High.
In discussions on the size of the bond earlier in January, both Lynch and Kirschling also considered that one or more smaller bonds in conjunction with funding sources such as SAVE (Secure an Advanced Vision for Education) and PPEL (Physical Plant and Equipment Levy) might be more realistic options to present to the public. But feedback from three listening posts held throughout the district in January, as well as a recent letter signed by state legislators, city officials, high school principals, business leaders and parents, urged the board to move ahead with the full amount.
Lynch said that while he believed it was important to have the debate on a smaller bond issue, the overwhelming message from the community was “keep it simple” and “stick to the plan.”
At the Jan. 31meeting, several district parents and stakeholders spoke out in support for a full bond referendum during the community commentary period.
North Liberty resident Shawn Eyestone emphasized that passing a bond to fund the entirety of the master plan is key to achieving the goal of equity for students across the district. “If the bond is split up that will necessitate splitting up the FMP into multiple pieces. I think this would unnecessarily pit an already at times fractured community against itself,” he said.
“The reason for a comprehensive plan isn’t simply to get people across the district on board to voting together, it’s to ensure that we are providing all the students of the district an equitable learning environment,” he noted.
Kate Moreland, Community Relations Director for Iowa City Area Development (ICAD), stressed the urgency of moving ahead with the bond. “Without it, the very goal of a unifying facility master plan will be in jeopardy,” she said. “Our school facilities are inadequate. While we continue to focus on busing, buildings and boundaries, other schools in the area are building STEM centers and implementing 21st century learning environments. “
“Get the full bond passed so that we can start focusing on making sure our kids are receiving the 21st century education they deserve in environments they can be proud of,” Moreland said.
Kelly Gallagher Terrill, a Hoover parent and signer of the open letter, agreed. “The improvements on the FMP are not cosmetic. They are essential,” she said. To get the bond passed, Gallagher asserted that it should be presented whole on the fall referendum. “We keep it in one piece so that the board can guarantee the balance that the comprehensive FMP provides … because for the past four years, that was the community’s intent.”
Liberty High principal Scott Kibby is also a strong supporter of the full bond issue. “Many hours and much thought were given to building the bond in a way that it impacts all geographical areas of the community as well as all age levels from elementary to high school,” he said.
“Obviously, Liberty has a lot to gain,” Kibby noted. “Our exterior athletic fields and a 500-seat academic addition are in the bond and will make a huge positive impact on the school and accommodate future growth.”
Since 2014, the district has already spent $67 million from SAVE and PPEL funding to construct the main building of the high school and make much needed improvements to Penn and Van Allen elementaries. Roughly 26 percent, or $50 million, of the total GO bond amount will go to building the new elementary school in North Liberty, completing the second and third phases of the high school facilities and making substantial upgrades to North Central Junior High.