Soon, the question of whether the Iowa Falls School District should raise taxes to fund construction of a new school will be up to the voters to decide. On Monday, the district’s board voted to accept a petition that will put the issue on the ballot for a special election on March 2.
Board members called the move - the first Iowa Falls School bond vote since 1997 - "exciting."
“Looking through the petition, after growing up here, you see a lot of names you recognize,” board member Chris Stauffer said of the 412 signatures collected by the project’s Vote Yes Committee. “All age groups, business, farm, all areas of the community. This is a very detailed cross-section of our community. It’s not like you have one part of the community saying yes. It’s exciting.”
If the ballot’s two questions both get more than 60 percent of the vote, the district’s property tax levy will increase an estimated $3.82 to collect $28,560,000, and work will begin to plan for construction of a new elementary school adjacent to Iowa Falls-Alden High School. It would replace the district's two current elementary schools, which were built in 1935 and 1938, and which a 2020 facilities study showed are outdated and in need of major upgrades.
The first preliminary architectural renderings of what the new building may look like were reviewed at Monday’s meeting. The proposed building would be home to preschool through fifth grade, and it would include a gymnasium and a library, as well as space for art and music, and a cafeteria that doubles as a storm shelter.
But the project wouldn’t stop with the elementary school. It would also construct new high school band and art rooms and an expanded shop, as well as relocated visitor’s locker rooms.
The drawings presented on Monday give a clearer picture of how and where the elementary school would attach to the high school, and how the new construction would affect current parking and athletic fields. Superintendent Tony Neumann pointed out that the elementary school’s classrooms would be separated from the high school by a gym and cafeteria, with no easy access to move from one building to the other.
“There’s a lot of distance between elementary and high school students,” he said. “It’s one campus, but very much separated.”
Outside the buildings, only the high school shot-put area would need to be moved, a project that was already being planned. The practice football field and other track and softball areas, as well as the property’s concession building and a new ticket booth, would be untouched by the project.
On the topic of parking, the plans show expanded and new parking lots to compensate for the loss of parking because of the building project. The front driveway parking lot at the high school would be expanded from the current eight spots, to 25. The north lot would be expanded to the north, and the south lot would be pushed out on three sides to provide more parking. In total, Neumann said he counted 550 parking spots on renderings of the new campus.
Before voting to put the issue on the ballot, the school board was asked to choose between three optional rough layouts, and between a one-story and a two-story elementary. Ultimately, the board chose to go with a two-story building that will require an additional $400,000 in funding beyond the bond measure. The plan will provide the maximum amount of space and organize the elementary school’s classrooms according to grade level in one two-story block. Board members favored that plan over expanding the footprint of the building to accommodate all of the grade levels.
“I think the bigger part of it is the expansion, the ability to grow,” board member Jack Kobe said about the largest of the options, which provides "extra" rooms. “I’m hoping that by doing this, it’s going to enhance our community, which we all want to have happen. And then we’ll have more people who want to move into the community and our community will continue to grow.”
Others considered the comparatively affordable price of $400,000 to provide three additional classrooms in the two-story option.
“Think of the preschool pod was $2 million for six classrooms,” Neumann said, referring to an addition at Pineview Elementary School 20 years ago. “We’re getting three classrooms for $400,000. So you’re adding quite a bit of classroom value for not much more money.”
The preschool and kindergarten classrooms will have their own in-classroom restrooms, and other grades will have restrooms near their classrooms. The building would also feature two playgrounds – one appropriate for grades kindergarten through second, and one for third through fifth grades – as well as an outdoor classroom area.
Moving forward, the election will be front of mind for district officials and members of the former Facilities Study Committee, which has transitioned into a Vote Yes committee. By law, school board members can not advocate one way or the other on the ballot issue, but they can provide information about the project. A key part of that education will be around the district’s tax levy, Neumann said.
“We’ve got our work cut out,” Neumann said. “Talking to people about tax rates will be the biggest thing they don’t understand.”
Specifically, the district and members of the Vote Yes committee will be speaking with the public about what a tax levy increase of $3.82 means for property owners. Taxes levies in Iowa are assessed per $1,000 of taxable valuation. But “taxable valuation” is not the full valuation of a property. Instead, the state applies “rollbacks” so that only a portion of a property’s valuation is taxed. Owners of residential property, for example, pay taxes on only about 55 percent of the home’s valuation. For a home with an assessed valuation at $100,000, a $3.82 increase would amount to about $210 per year.
Voter education will also likely include information about the district’s recent tax levy history. The current levy of $11.87 per $1,000 of taxable valuation is the result of declining tax levies each of the last four years. The current levy ranks fifth among the eight public school districts that include Hardin County property. If voters approve the bond issue in March, the new estimated levy would be $15.69 per $1,000 of taxable valuation, which is 76 cents more than it was four years ago at $14.93 per $1,000.
The district will deliver the petition to the Hardin County Auditor’s Office this week, and preparations will begin for a special election that’s just seven weeks away.