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Send funds to elementary schools

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | SEPTEMBER 18, 2012 6:30 AM

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The Iowa City School Board will take another step toward deciding how best to use millions of dollars in tax money set aside for the building of new facilities at tonight’s board meeting.

In 2007, the School Board enacted a policy intended to raise money for long-term upgrades to facilities by saving up property-tax revenue for 10 years. The policy stipulated that if the funds had not been allocated to new construction projects by 2017, then the School Board would be free to spend the money elsewhere. Officials later decided that $32 million of the set-aside funds would be put toward the building of a new high school.

The School Board will discuss a possible alteration to the 2007 plan that would immediately free up $14.9 million of the funds set aside for a new high school for use on more pressing projects, including renovation of Iowa City’s crowded elementary schools.

Given the current needs of the local communities, the board should act to unlock the funds and thereby allow it to properly invest in elementary education. For too long, local schools have been given short shrift by the school board in favor of new development in the northwest section of the metro area.

Since 1993, no new schools have been built in Iowa City, and no new City High feeder schools have been built since 1969. Since 1997, by contrast, five elementary or junior high schools have been built in North Liberty and Coralville.

While it should be noted that North Liberty and Coralville have both seen very high rates of population growth over the past decade, Iowa City, which has a significantly larger population base, also grew by at least 9 percent between 2000 and 2009.

As a result, Iowa City’s elementary schools as a whole are operating closer to full capacity than Coralville’s and North Liberty’s despite populations growing at similar rates.

Aging facilities that lack air conditioning, among other basic comforts, magnify the need for upgrades.

Proponents of the plan to build a third comprehensive high school in North Liberty argue that rapid population growth in Coralville and North Liberty has necessitated measures to curb overcrowding at West High.

Crowding at the district’s high schools is a problem that will have to be dealt with down the line, of course, but building a new high school is not yet necessary. At the end of the 2011-12 academic year, West High was operating at 60 students over capacity; City High was 200 students under.

What’s needed now is short-term action to solve the more pressing problem of neglect in Iowa City’s elementary schools. To argue otherwise would be to argue for the continuation of a program of unequal development that has led many in Iowa City, including Mayor Matt Hayek, to call for a change.

“Iowa City residents contribute a proportionately larger share of the property and sales taxes going to the district,” Hayek wrote in an August letter to the School Board, advocating for increased investment in Iowa City schools. “Yet, in recent years, only a fraction of the district’s capital dollars have been invested in Iowa City schools.”

The School Board should act to reverse the trend toward inequality and remedy the problems facing elementary education in Iowa City before concentrating more resources on the building of a new high school on the periphery of the community.


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