Iowa City School District Pushes For Sales Tax Vote

By Gregg Hennigan, Reporter

IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa City school district has started its campaign for a February vote that could give the district $100 million for construction projects.

Superintendent Stephen Murley discussed the issue at a news conference Monday – the first time in at least the past several years that the district has had a news conference on any subject.

Murley said district officials are already meeting with district staff, parent-teacher organizations and local groups. Meetings with the general public will come in January in advance of the Feb. 5 special election.

Voters in the Iowa City school district will decide whether to approve what is called a revenue purpose statement on how sales tax revenue collected by the school district is spent.

That 1 percent sales tax is in effect until 2029, and the district has a revenue purpose statement that lasts until 2017. The district wants a new one so it can borrow ahead on sales tax funds past 2017. Up to $100 million would be available to the district if voters approve the measure.

The money is needed now to deal with growing enrollment, Iowa City school officials say. The district has added 750 students in the past two years alone, Murley said, and enrollment is projected to increase by at least 200 students annually in the coming years.

Meanwhile, school construction has been a source of debate in recent years. Four new schools have opened on the district's west and north sides since 2005, and there are calls for a high school in North Liberty. Some east-side parents have said their neighborhoods have been neglected as a result.

Some of the district's main selling points for the new revenue purpose statement are aimed at this issue. Murley said approval on Feb. 5 would give the district access to the funds in advance and would provide a way to address "explosive growth and enrollment."

Murley acknowledged the lack of renovations to existing buildings, many of them on the east side of Iowa City. He said having the ability to borrow ahead would allow the district to build new schools and refurbish existing ones, thus easing the current debate over how to spend limited funds.

"This alleviates the need to make all of those decisions because we have the ability to do some of both," he said, "Not all of both ... but we certainly can do a lot more."

Parents across the district already have asked how the money would be spent, with some suggesting their vote depends on the details.

The district is creating a long-term facilities plan, but that will not be ready by Feb. 5. Murley said Monday that administrators and school board members will start work later this month on a timeline laying out when major projects, like new schools and additions to existing buildings, could occur. That will be available before February, he said.

Murley said that, as of now, administrators anticipate about one-third of the sales tax money would go toward remodeling projects and the rest for new construction.

Another major point school officials are stressing is that passage in February would not result in a tax increase. The 1 percent sales tax is already in place and is here to stay until at least 2029.

If a new revenue purpose statement is not approved before the current one expires in 2017, the state would require the money be used on certain things first, including paying down bond debt. Murley said the potential loss of local control is another reason voters should approve the measure.

Murley said borrowing sales tax revenue would not prevent future school boards from having money to spend on projects. The district can only borrow two-thirds of the dollars, so at least one-third would be available annually, he said.

Also, districts statewide typically get more new state funding every year, and the Iowa City school district's growing enrollment will bring in more state aid, he said. Finally, two general obligation bonds will be paid off by 2018, freeing $50 million for the district.
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