A committee of volunteers is pushing toward its goal of making a recommendation to the Iowa Falls School Board on the future of its school buildings, but two key questions stick out. Would residents of the school district support a major construction project? And if the answer is yes, how much more are they willing to pay in property taxes to make it happen?
The Facilities Committee has been meeting this summer to discuss building needs in the district. The group was formed this spring, after the school board received a report on the condition of its buildings. The 36 pages of bulleted lists and color-coded tables – which was produced by Denovo and KCL Engineering – lays out the immediate and longterm needs of the district’s four school buildings. Representatives of the two companies walked through the buildings and built a list of necessary upgrades and replacements, from failing heating systems and worn out flooring, to sagging ceiling tiles and ineffective lighting. The group also noted the lack of air conditioning in the buildings. The rough cost to make those fixes was estimated at $29 million.
Discussion turned to new construction. Would it make more sense to spend that kind of money to build a new school or a school addition? That’s where the Facilities Committee came in – to review the engineers’ report, look at the buildings and make recommendations. But as the committee gets further into its discussions, school board member Chris Stauffer, who has attended the committee's meetings, said the board needs to be more specific in its instructions and requests for recommendations.
“As we go through this we’ll find out that there’s some things that as a board we need to provide direction to that committee, of what we’re looking for from them,” Stauffer said during discussion at the school board's July 13 meeting.
But the school board, too, is in need of some direction. If the district moves forward with any kind of major renovations or construction of a new school it would need to bond for the money to do the work, and a bond requires 60 percent approval from voters. Without that approval, the district would be significantly limited in what it could accomplish.
“The people I hear from are older people and they want something built here,” said board member Dawn Parker, a retired teacher. “They don’t even have children here, but they’re community people who want something built.
“What are other people hearing?” she asked, repeating a question she posed to the Facilities Committee at its July 13 meeting. “If we have big opposition to building anything, we’re just kind of wasting our time. But if [committee members] come back and say ‘Yes, we have a lot of support,’ I feel better about this.”
Dave Moore, who previously helped with a school bond referendum in Independence, Iowa, shared his experience there.
“You’re not going to hear the negatives of [the proposal] until you decide to go ahead and go forward,” he said.
With so many options laid out before the district and so little input from the public, it's been difficult to find a clear answer.
Dave Jorgensen, of Denovo, was in attendance at the meeting and the committee meeting earlier in the day. He offered some advice.
“I think the sense I got coming out of [the committee meeting] was you’re going to need an answer for all grade levels to get a bond issue passed,” Jorgensen said. “The high school and middle school are really pretty solid buildings, but there are some things that need to be done.”
Jorgensen said his team will go back to the drawing board and prioritize the work that needs to be done – air conditioning, heating, ventilation and electrical upgrades.
An important part of the equation, Jorgensen said, is how much the district – and its voters – would be willing to bond to pay for upgrades.
Neumann said the maximum bond would be $26.5 million, and that would raise property taxes in the district by about $4.70 per $1,000 of taxable valuation.
Once a total funding amount is known, Jorgensen said engineers can plan projects to get the heating, air conditioning and ventilation up to date in all of the buildings.
“Then let’s see what we’ve got left over from a budget standpoint,” Jorgensen said. “If that’s $16 million, whatever, what can we do to maximize that for your elementary schools? Bring them all to one location? Upgrade the two buildings? I have a hard time putting money into those two buildings, quite honestly.”
The focus of the board has largely been on Pineview and Rock Run elementary schools. They are the district’s oldest buildings – both built in the 1930s. That age is starting to show at Pineview, where the original heating system is beginning to fail. Last winter, it was limped along through maintenance and careful attention. To replace the deteriorating pipes would cost the district upwards of $200,000. But the board, leery about spending that kind of money on a building that may be replaced in the very near future, decided this spring that it will do regular maintenance for the next year to hopefully keep it operational while the board decides whether to replace the entire building. That means the clock is ticking. And that’s forcing a decision on the question of whether to build a new school.
“In an ideal world we would have time for a lot of back and forth," said Neumann. “I don’t know what our timeline is with Pineview . . . I’m worried we don’t have time because building projects are not fast.”
Even if the district were to decide this month that it wants to build a new elementary school, that project would take years.
“If we really had everything pushed, if everything ran ideal, if we could get the bond in March, if it was passed in March, if we could get bids, if we could get construction, and there’s no global pandemic,” Neumann said, trailing off. “Two and a half years would be the fastest timeline I’ve ever heard of. You’re still talking the 2022-23 school year and that’s hitting everything perfect in stride.”
Board members said they want to hear from the community about the issue – those who would support an increase in taxes to build a new school, and those who would oppose it. But even if the district doesn’t build a new school now, the issue won’t go away. And the cost to maintain 80-year-old buildings won’t decrease.
“Speaking for myself, I think we’re long overdue,” board president Todd Bicknese said of a construction project. “Am I excited to have taxes go up? No, never. But I do understand that that’s part of progress. If you want to go to communities where their tax bases are going down, you probably have to ask yourself how long are they going to survive? They lose businesses, they lose schools, they lose hospitals. Those are the things that we have to think about and somehow we’ve got to get that message out. We’ve got to be forward thinking.”
The board invited public input – by reaching out directly to the board members (find their contact information here), or the district. Neumann said he’ll work on creating a survey that could be shared throughout the district and with the community to gauge interest in a bond issue.