With deadline looming, $312 million bond for Cedar Rapids schools facing more criticism

Published: Nov. 14, 2022 at 12:27 PM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - The interim Cedar Rapid Schools Superintendent faces a challenge to carry on the $312 million bond proposal of his predecessor to renovate or replace the district’s middle and high schools as more questions emerge on the plan with a deadline looming.

In an update Monday night, staff is expected to ask for a December vote from the school board to put the bond on the ballot for voters. That vote would then happen in March on a plan that includes renovating every district high school, building a new aquatic center and condensing the existing 6 middle schools to 4 larger ones by renovating Taft and Franklin while closing McKinley, Harding, Roosevelt and Wilson Middle Schools and replacing them with new buildings.

The board packet for Monday’s meeting includes 17 questions from unidentified board members on the proposed plan, many of them centered on concerns about the proposal to close McKinley Middle School as it serves an area with a higher volume of low-income families with transportation issues.

“Unless I see a lot more information regarding closing McKinley I will not vote to support a plan that does so,” one unidentified board member writes. “Many families in this area have significant financial insecurities that are often expressed in a lack of access to transportation.”

In response, staff writes that McKinley could become home to a magnet program, like Iowa BIG or City View but does not answer questions about transportation for students to different middle schools and accessing after school programs.

Interim Superintendent Art Sathoff said the questions from the board pose legitimate concerns for those asking if the plan is ready to go to voters.

“Definitely a fair question, before you can expect the community really to feel comfortable that their questions are answered it is fair to hope your elected representatives are comfortable with the plan,” Sathoff said

Sathoff pointed out the district has done a public survey, held public meetings and has met privately with community leaders since announcing the plan. However, Sathoff was not part of those as Superintendent Noreen Bush had championed the plan until her death from cancer last month. Now, taking over for Bush, Sathoff says the school board will ultimately decide if the bond vote should go forward with so many questions and without a permanent superintendent in place.

“I do know when you invest a lot of time in the plan and you’re really pushing forward, it hurts to have to delay or push the pause button but sometimes that has to happen to make sure you’re really prepared, you have your ducks in a row and you’re putting the best plan forward.”

Sathoff’s previous experience passing a bond vote in his previous district of Indianola this past September, which was highlighted when he was named interim superintendent in Cedar Rapids, poses a similarity. That bond vote was first proposed as Sathoff announced his retirement. The board there decided to postpone a planned March bond vote to September to account for the change in leadership.

The board questions do reveal at least one new answer: Wilson Middle School would be completely replaced and torn down. Initial versions of the proposal noted that could happen but also included an option to renovate Wilson rather than tear it down. That change drew criticism from Save CR Heritage, which was on the Task Force that created the initial proposal, saying the change dismisses the Task Force input.

“A majority of task force members favored keeping all four of the historic middle schools: Wilson, McKinley, Franklin and Roosevelt, but at tonight’s School Board meeting, the “consensus” presented will be a plan completely disconnected from that recommendation, along with plans never discussed with the group, such as moving Metro High School to McKinley,” said Cindy Hadish with Save CR Heritage, a group focused on preserving historical buildings and landmarks across the city.

Sathoff said the bond vote is only one of the challenges he faces as an interim. He had not planned to take an interim position, let alone one in a metro area, when he retired from Indianola this past summer. However, he said the untimely death of Bush created an opportunity where he felt he could help. Now, he says he is focused on helping the district heal and get to its next leader.

“I believe seek first to understand then be understood and just kind of see what she means to the community, understand the initiatives that are ongoing here, the things she was championing. I just want to work hard and honor her work with my interim work.”

The district has hired an outside firm to conduct a search for a new superintendent to take over for next school year.