Iowa City community stands divided over school bond

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The Iowa City community School District is voting on Tuesday on the general obligation bond to fund the Facilities Master Plan, but tensions between the community and school board have divided the district into vote “yes” and “no.”

By Kit Fitzgerald
katherine-fitzgerald@uiowa.edu

Posters have been passed out, editorials have been written by the dozens, and citizens have gathered in the Farmers’ Market across from City Hall, shouting either “Yes” or “No.” All of this attention surrounds the upcoming school-bond referendum.

Should Iowa City vote to approve the general-obligation bond on Tuesday? It depends on whom you ask.

What’s the issue?

$191 million General Obligation Bond.

Who’s involved?

Iowa City Community School Board (pro-bond)

“One Community One Bond” (pro-bond)

“Vote No” (anti-bond)

Why does it matter?

The GO Bond will be the largest bond in Iowa history if passed, and “Vote No” is not confident the School Board will spend the money correctly.

What is the general-obligation bond?

The general-obligation bond is a $191.5 million measure designed to fund the remainder of the Iowa City School District’s Facilities Master Plan. The bond will be paid off through the year 2042 via a hike in property taxes, which will affect University of Iowa students’ rent.

Iowa City School District Superintendent Stephen Murley said the School Board has completed part of the master plan, spending $150 million provided by the state.

“Now, we have run out of money to finish the plan, which we knew was going to happen …” he said. “Part of the plan always required that we go out to the community for a bond.”

Two grass-roots campaigns have sprung up in response to the proposed bond: “One Community One Bond,” which is pro-bond, and “Vote No,” which is anti-bond. Both campaigns comprise parents and community members.

Facilities Master Plan

In 2013, the School Board crafted the master plan with the help of committees and public forums to address health, safety, and accessibility in every school in the district. Some of the schools have not been updated for 50 years.

“It’s embarrassing,” One Community One Bond Mary Kate Pilcher Hayek told The Daily Iowan. “The state of these schools is simply inexcusable.”

The plan includes projects in 20 schools in the district. Projects include capacity needs, new sports facilities, music and art rooms, air conditioning, and renovating outdated structures.

Pilcher Hayek said community surveys showed the public’s most desired projects include air conditioning, Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility, and overcrowding.

Vote No proponents say some of the plan’s projects are great, but they are not prioritized in order of importance.

“[Projects like air conditioning and ADA compliance] don’t happen in the first five or six years [of this bond] …” Heather Young of Vote No said. “If there’s any mismanaging of money, there will be no money left for essential projects.”

Murley said officials are addressing air conditioning in elementary schools as quickly as possible.

“The plan is designed to balance the many needs of [the plan] …” he said. “It’s designed to ensure that the district actually has the capacity to complete each set of projects every two years.”

Consistency is another issue raised.

“[The School Board] is saying they’ll do everything on [the plan],” said Vote No’s Caroline Dieterle (a former DI librarian). “But they’ve already changed it.”

She referenced updates to the master plan in 2015 and 2017, which the School Board approved.

Murley said the School Board’s plan adjusts to the capacity needs for each school, so officials update enrollment projections every two years.

Flexibility in the ballot language

The School Board is only legally bound to the exact ballot language of the bond, Vote No’s Mary Murphy said.

“The ballot language doesn’t include specific dollar amounts or projects,” she said. “[There are] words like ‘accessibility,’ ‘health,’ ‘safety’: incredibly broad. They can do whatever they want under that ballot language.”

School Board President Chris Lynch said the bond language was generated based on legal desk practices and ballot practices.

“You can clearly see all of the projects … and the type of works that’s in the bond, and you have very detailed supplemental data on the district webpage,” Lynch said. “Every school is [in the ballot language].”

But current School Board member Chris Liebig, who is against the bond, said the ballot language governs [the board], not the master plan.

“I don’t think the ballot language would stop us from reallocating money within the different projects in the bond,” he said. “At least that’s what the superintendent has told us.”

Murley told the *DI* there is flexibility in the bond but for good reason. For example, if a boiler blows up in a school, he said, the School Board would be responsible for reallocating money in the bond to fix it.

Vote No proponents said this flexibility is still worrisome.

“The ballot language is vague for a reason …” Murphy said. “Under this language, [the School Board] isn’t accountable for anything.”

Vote No supporters noted that Stillwater, Minnesota, passed a similar $98 million bond in 2015.

After the Stillwater bond was passed, the School Board shut down three of the schools it had originally planned to renovate. Lawsuits followed, but the courts dismissed them because the vague ballot language allowed the closings.

Murley said he did not know anything about the Stillwater situation, so he couldn’t comment.

Pilcher Hayek said, from her perspective as a lawyer, there are too many differing specific details to compare Stillwater and Iowa City.

“The School Board has already completed the first part of the [plan] under budget and on time. Do you really think they won’t do the rest?” she said. “What [is the School Board] going to change after 60 percent of the community voted for [the plan]?”

True cost of the bond

The Vote No campaign is also concerned with the accurate cost of the bond.

In its promotional material, One Community One Bond says the bond will cost $4.25 a month for a home with an assessed value of $100,000.

However, the actual effect of the bond is $8.45 a month for a home with an assessed value of $100,000, Murphy said — nearly double what is being advertised.

“Mary Murphy’s math is probably correct,” Pilcher Hayek said. “[The difference is] she doesn’t want to include numbers that can move.”

The moving numbers involve a board discretionary levy reduction and a retired bond. The levy reduction stems from the School District’s cash reserve being full, so taxpayers won’t have to shell out as much money. The retired debt comes from a previous bond that is almost paid off.

Both the reduction levy and the retired bond will happen regardless of the bond’s fate.

“The ‘Yes side’ is emphasizing how much your tax bill is likely to go up if the bill passes,” Liebig said. “But they’re not emphasizing that your tax bill will go down if the bond does not pass.”

Craig Hansel, the School District chief financial officer, said the figure the School Board and One Community One Bond promote is the total impact on taxpayers, not just the effect of the bond.

Murley said now would be the best time for a bond because the School District was recently given the highest bond rating — Aaa — by Moody’s Investors Service.

Hansel said the top bond rating will make the district’s bonds desirable to underwriters, who will buy the bond from the School District. The competition among banks will drive the cost of the bond down.

Are there any alternatives?

The Vote No group wants to use the master plan, but the members want to look for alternatives to such a large, accountability-free bond.

Liebig was in favor of renovating old buildings but said there should be smaller bonds and time frames.

Vote No said taking on fewer projects could increase the trust between the School Board and the community, so that the taxpayers can see what is getting done.

But Murley said there is a concern with smaller projects. The School District is split among five municipalities. To approve a bond for a series of projects, all five municipalities have to vote yes.

“This community does not think or act like a community when voting,” said One Community One Bond’s Josh Schamberger. “We vote as neighborhoods.”

The Vote No side did not share that concern.

“That sounds very cynical to me,” Vote No’s Martha Hampel said. “I have more trust in the community to support each other and vote yes than I do in the School Board to do everything they say they’ll do.”

Pilcher Hayek said if the bond were split up, the public would have to vote to approve each one every six months and more bonds could mean higher interest and higher construction rates.

“You couldn’t find anyone with political experience that says [splitting up the bond] is practical …” she said.

A question of trust

“We’re asking for some trust here …” Murley said. “And there are people in the community who are not willing to extend that trust. And that’s really the crux of it all.”

Hampel said the lack of trust is not directed just at the School Board but at Murley and his use of outside consultants and pushing through projects the School Board may not approve.

Despite a claim of widespread mistrust, Vote No said it doesn’t get a lot of public support.

“We’re getting donations anonymously. You don’t see any Vote No signs in yards … It’s because of the culture of intimidation and retribution in the School District,” Dieterle said. “Voting against this bond is like voting against motherhood and apple pie.”

Liebig said if the district had a healthier attitude toward dissent, disagreement, compromise, and community input, Iowa City would see a different proposal.

“I guess Vote No just hopes the citizens are paying attention,” Dieterle said. “All we can do is make sure to get out and vote.”

Clarification:

In a Sept. 11 article titled “School bond breakdown,” The Daily Iowan quoted Mary Kate Pilcher Hayek as saying, “Mary Murphy’s math is probably correct … [The difference is] she doesn’t want to include numbers that can move.”

When Pilcher Hayek spoke with the DI, the broader context was that even if the [Vote No] numbers were correct, she claimed the tax rate could get higher if the bond were delayed or if the district chose instead to pass multiple bonds.

In the same story, the DI included this sentence: “Despite a claim of widespread mistrust, Vote No said it doesn’t get a lot of public support.” Vote No sources said that while they receive a lot of support from the public, people are reticent to display their support.

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