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Janesville School voters approve bond issue

JANESVILLE — An $8.6 million bond issue to expand and upgrade Janesville Consolidated School was approved Tuesday by just over 62 percent of voters.

School district voters cast ballots on two questions — the bond issue and an increase in the property tax rate of up to $4.05 per $1,000 of taxable value. The questions were approved 731 to 432 for the bond issue and 724 to 438 for the tax increase, according to unofficial results. Each question needed at least 60 percent approval for passage.

“I can only thank the committee,” said Superintendent B.J. Meaney, referencing those who planned and worked on the referendum. “We have some people who really need to be recognized. They put a ton of time into this project because of how passionate they are.”

The bond funds, which will be repaid with the increased taxes over a 20-year period, will be used to add 10 classrooms in preschool through high school and a new competition gym, among other improvements. It was the district’s third effort to pass a referendum after two 2016 votes fell short.

“One of the things the voters told us last time was they didn’t have enough information,” said Meaney. So district officials explained the project on social media, in mailers and at an open house. “We spent a lot of time on making sure the information got out there properly.”

The Board of Education and administration also plan on taking steps to minimize the increase. Officials pledged to keep the net tax rate increase at $2.71, which would boost it overall to $14.13 per $1,000 of taxable value for the fiscal year starting July 1. For the owner of a $100,000 home, the annual property tax increase would total $153.05.

The management levy rate, which covers costs such as liability insurance and early retirement payouts, would drop to zero from $1.11 per $1,000 of taxable value currently. The voter-approved physical plant and equipment levy, which pays for facility maintenance needs and equipment replacement, would drop from $1.34 to $1.11 per $1,000 of taxable value.

In 2022, the PPEL expires and district officials do not plan on asking voters to extend it for another 10 years. The tax rate would go back up to $1.11 for the management levy at that time. As far as expenses paid for with the physical plant and equipment levy, the district will still have the board-approved PPEL of 33 cents per $1,000 of taxable value.

A total of 1,163 votes were cast in the referendum — about 60 percent of 1,925 registered voters, according to the Bremer County auditor’s office.

“The community came out and their voices were heard,” said Meaney. “The turnout was tremendous.”

He said officials will begin working with architect as soon as possible to begin planning for the project.

“We’re really hoping that by the first day of school in (the fall of) 2019 that everything will be complete,” said Meaney.


Fire destroyed a home at 3919 Beaver Ridge Trail, Cedar Falls, on Monday.

UPDATE: Fire north of Cedar Falls was second in year near country club (PHOTOS/VIDEO)

CEDAR FALLS —A fire that destroyed a home near Beaver Hills Country Club late Monday was the second blaze in that upscale rural neighborhood in less than a year.

Fire Chief John Bostwick said the cause of fire at 3919 Beaver Ridge Trail is still under investigation. Public Safety Director Jeff Olson said it is believed to have originated in the upper chimney of a wood burning stove.

In March a fire destroyed the home of Goodwill Industries executive Chris Harshbarger at 3614 Beaver Ridge Circle. There are no fire hydrants in the unincorporated area northwest of Cedar Falls city limits. Residents use wells instead of municipal water service.

“The distance to the Beaver Hills area would make it extremely costly to install a water system capable of fire protection,” said Steve Bernard, Cedar Falls Utilities general manager. “The cost would likely be several million dollars to cover the distance and necessary railroad and creek crossings.” It also would have to occur at the initiative of property owners there.

Olson said firefighters followed regular procedures, sending two pumper trucks each with 600-750 gallons of water and a tanker with 1,500 gallons to the scene initially. Then water was hauled from the closest available location at West First and Shirley streets on the west end of town.

“We shuttled 35 tankers full of water to that location with 1,500 to 2,000 gallons each,” Olson said. Nearby Janesville firefighters responded immediately to haul water, assisted by firefighters from Dike, New Hartford, Stout and Shell Rock. Six tankers in all continuously shuttled water, and Black Hawk County personnel cleared, sanded and salted rural roads in the wake of that day’s snowstorm to smooth progress to the scene.

Olson said the city had nine career firefighters, 12 cross-trained public safety officers and two alternative paid-on-call staff on scene fighting the fire, and a total of nearly 40 people including the other departments. City officials say public safety officers, cross-trained in police work as well as fighting fires, allow the city to bring more personnel to a fire scene than ever before.

There were no injuries in Monday’s fire. Bostwick said he believes the family stayed with neighbors following the fire. Property records show the home is owned by Darren and Sara Yoder and was valued at $400,000.

Housing development eyed near Orange Elementary School

WATERLOO — Plans for new homes around Orange Elementary School have won an endorsement from city zoning officials to the dismay of neighbors.

Orange Township residents packed the Waterloo Planning, Programming and Zoning Commission on Tuesday with concerns and opposition to the proposed Paradise Estates Addition.

Property owner Hope Martin “Buzz” Anderson is attempting to rezone 129 acres of farm land northeast of the intersection of Orange Road and Kimball Avenue to create an estimated 180 residential lots with a few lots for offices and 10 acres of commercial use along Highway 21 to the east.

Planning commissioners voted instead to unanimously endorse rezoning all of the land for residential use, meaning any offices or commercial projects would need to return for site plan approval in the future.

The zoning change now heads to the City Council for a final decision in about three weeks.

Residents in the close-knit neighborhood near the property spent nearly an hour speaking out against the request.

Some were adamantly opposed to any development on the property. Others were concerned about the size of lots, the impact on already low water pressure in the area, additional traffic near the school, whether the school could handle more students and the prospect of any commercial development near their homes.

“The community has many concerns, and I hope you’ll take them to heart,” said neighbor Diane Sittig.

“We’re proud of our neighborhood,” added resident Barbara Henning. “It’s probably inevitable that something’s going to happen. But I would like to see, if we are going to rezone it, that it all be (residential).”

Monique Walters, whose family lives and farms across Kimball Avenue from the site, wasn’t happy with the plans.

“When I look out my front window I see agriculture,” she said. “We don’t need the city coming to Orange Township.”

Waterloo Water Works officials acknowledged the area suffers from low water pressue, which may require homeowners to install booster pumps. The estimated $3 million fix, which includes another water tower in the area, is currently not in the utility’s 10-year plan.

“I don’t really feel comfortable putting anything else out there until the water people can address the issues that are already there,” said zoning commissioner Marcia Buttgen.

But Community Planning and Development Director Noel Anderson said the issue before the commission this week was whether to rezone the land and for what types of use. Issues about lot sizes, street connections, water and other utilities would be part of a future platting process.

The city’s traffic engineer is asking the developer to complete a traffic study prior to the plat being submitted.

Zoning commissioners Sue Flynn and Craig Holdiman, a current and former school board member respectively, both noted Orange Elementary School was designed to handle residential growth.

“If the city’s going to grow we’re going to have to — one way or another — find places to build the homes and house the people that want to live here,” Holdiman said.

Flynn said the school has 496 students now but was built to handle 650 students.

Neither Buzz Anderson nor any of his representatives attended the meeting to answer questions posed by commissioners and neighbors. City staff said they believe Anderson is planning to build his own home on a 10-acre site on the northwest corner of the development.


School funding: As House GOP eyes 1% hike today, Democrats say that is inadequate

DES MOINES — The state’s investment in Iowa’s K-12 public schools has been an annual point of contention among state lawmakers.

Since 2011, when Republicans gained at least partial control of the state lawmaking process (they now have complete control), they say they have made public education funding a priority.

Democrats see it differently; they say the GOP has woefully underfunded public schools.

The two sides also disagree over whether state funding has had an adverse impact on schools: Democrats say low funding levels have caused larger class sizes and forced districts to lay off staff, while Republicans point to data that suggest otherwise.

The dispute resumes today as the House debates setting the level of state funding for elementary and secondary schools for the next school year. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed a 1.5 percent increase, while legislators in both the House and Senate propose a 1 percent increase.

While Republicans determine which figure to settle on, Democrats say neither is adequate.

“I’m proud of the fact that when we’ve been tight in growth in these years, budget-wise. ... We’ve still been able to increase (school funding) at a commensurate level to the economy,” said Walt Rogers, a Republican state lawmaker from Cedar Falls who leads the House Education Committee. “I’m proud of it.”

Democrats and public school advocates argue inadequate funding already has had an adverse effect.

“Of course years of budget cuts have an impact,” said Jean Hessburg of the Iowa State Education Association, which represents more than 34,000 teachers across the state. “Talk to any parent in any part of the state and ask any parent if the budget cuts have had an impact in their school and their community, and they will tell you what they are seeing in their schools: absolutely budget cuts are having an impact in their schools.”

Both sides have data to support their arguments. Much of that data requires context to fully understand.

Funding levels

Republicans insist they have made public education a priority. They note K-12 school funding makes up more than 40 percent of the state budget, and they have approved annual funding increases despite holding some state agency budgets flat and cutting others.

Since Republicans took partial control in 2011, K-12 school funding has increased each year other than the first, resulting in nearly $713 million in new money, according to the state’s nonpartisan data agency.

Total state aid for K-12 public schools was more than $3.2 billion for the 2017-2018 school year.

“Gosh, that’s pretty good,” Rogers said. “So I feel good about those numbers. We’ve been able to increase it, at the same time being able to keep our budget in a good place overall.”

However, those funding increases have been lower than the state’s historical average. Since Republicans gained at least partial control at the Iowa Capitol, K-12 school funding has increased less than 3 percent in six of seven years. That happened only seven times in the previous 39 years, according to the state data agency.

And while that funding remains a large slice of the state budget pie, that slice has been shrinking under Republican control, from 45.8 percent in the year before they took partial control to 40.7 percent in the 2015-2016 school year, the most recent with available data.

“This will be the eighth straight year that we have historically underfunded schools,” said Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, her party’s leader on the House Education Committee.

Class sizes

Democrats warned lower funding leads to teacher layoffs and results in larger class sizes, which studies show hurt student learning.

State education department data suggests that has not happened.

Democrats and public school advocates, however, say that data does not paint an accurate picture of the reality in classrooms.

The number of full-time teachers statewide increased each of the past six years, from the 2011-2012 to 2016-2017 school years, according to state data. The number of teachers increased 3 percent while enrollment over the same period increased 2.5 percent.

And the state’s average K-12 class size has remained steady, even fallen slightly: from 20.3 students per class in the 2013-2014 school year to 19.5 in 2016-2017.

But Democrats and public school advocates say the average class size figure is skewed by, for example, teachers in the state’s teacher leadership program, which takes teachers out of the classroom so they can mentor others. Those teachers are counted even though they are not always in the classroom teaching. More than 9,500 teachers participated in the program during the 2016-2017 school year, according to the state education department.

And while the overall average class size has remained steady, some grade-specific class sizes are larger and increasing.

For example, while the overall average class size in Iowa’s K-12 public schools is 19.5 students, the average class size in first and second grades is more than 20, and the average third-grade class is just shy of 22 students and increasing.

“That particular statistic is very skewed and is not accurate with what’s going on in the general education classroom,” Steckman said. “Those class sizes are up. You have kindergarten classes of almost 30 (students).”