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Education
Janesville to vote for third time on school expansion, upgrades

JANESVILLE — Voters will go to the polls Tuesday to cast ballots on an $8.6 million bond issue that would fund expansion and upgrades to Janesville Consolidated School.

Classrooms and a new competition gymnasium would be added and a number of maintenance issues addressed, among other improvements. Officials say the expansion is needed due to enrollment growth that’s expected to continue. They also believe the existing gym is no longer adequate for athletics.

This is the school district’s third attempt at funding the work after two 2016 votes fell short of the 60 percent needed for passage.

A hike in the property tax rate of up to $4.05 per $1,000 of taxable value would repay the general obligation bonds over 20 years. While the bond amount and the tax rate increase are higher than in the last two referendums, district officials plan to reduce other tax levies so the overall impact on property owners is about equal to those past proposals.

“Our intention, or my intention, is to keep the property tax ask as low as we possibly can while still maintaining the school district and its needs,” said Superintendent B.J. Meaney.

Officials are pledging to keep the net increase at $2.71 per $1,000 of taxable value. That would be a rise from $11.42 to $14.13 per $1,000 of taxable value when the new fiscal year starts July 1. For the owner of a $100,000 home, the annual property tax increase would total $153.05.

The Janesville group Citizens Opposed to Higher Property Taxes issued a statement calling on district residents to vote against the bond issue, singling out the proposed gym and preschool classroom additions for criticism.

“As with any bond issue, voters are not given an a la carte menu choice,” Brian Schmidt, the group’s spokesman, said in an email to The Courier. “Voters are given an option to vote yes if they are for every aspect of the ballot. If they are opposed to any part of it, they should vote no.”

Voters will be deciding whether to approve two ballot questions: the bond issue and the tax levy. “A ‘yes’ vote is a ‘yes’ to both questions and anything else is a ‘no’ vote,” said Meaney.

Scott Schaefer was among about 100 people who participated in recent open houses that gave residents a chance to tour the school and see the classroom and gym space. School staff showed his group the room the band is in danger of outgrowing next year, the Spanish and health class space that has been carved out of the weight room and how they are accommodating elementary grade levels that have grown to two sections.

“I’m thinking they’re lacking for space, so something needs to be done,” Schaefer said. He added that “I don’t really have a problem with” the proposed increase in taxes.

Enrollment up

“We’ve gone from 268 students to 382 students in less than 10 years,” said Meaney, an increase of 40 percent. “I know we’ll be up again next year. In fact, I’d expect us to be up around 400 for next school year.”

To deal with the growth, three new classrooms would be added in both the high school and middle school areas. The band room would be expanded. Four elementary classrooms would be added along with two preschool classrooms.

A new corridor and varsity locker rooms would be part of the gym addition. Around the new preschool rooms, an Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant access to the cafeteria would be created. Two small elementary classrooms would be renovated into restrooms.

Outside air exchangers would be added for the middle school while aging boilers and roofs over the elementary and gym areas would be replaced. New parking would be added west of the football field.

The group opposing the bond issue suggested in its statement parents should pay more for the preschool services. “The school would then have the funds to improve the optional preschool program, making it truly self-sufficient,” it reads.

Meaney noted that program operates with a combination of parent fees and state funding. “We certainly try to run a preschool program that’s break-even,” he said.

Regarding a new gym, the statement asks, “Why haven’t the boosters raised the funds to pay for an improved facility? Charge appropriate entrance fees, hold fundraisers and talk to potential donors that could have their names on the facility.”

Meaney expressed concerns with safety in the gym because the playing court is within three and four feet of the bleachers and cinder block walls. “In my opinion, it’s not a matter of if someone gets hurt in our gym, it’s when.” He noted, as well, the gym is for more than sports with physical education classes, concerts and community events held there.

Reductions

Tax rate reductions to offset the proposed increase would be done through the budgeting process in the coming months.

A reductions of $1.34 in two tax rates that are part of the district’s overall levy is planned for the next four years. The management levy rate 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. That would then cover the entire $1.34 planned reduction in the net tax rate increase. As a result, the tax rate would go back up to $1.11 for the management levy.

Meaney said the management levy covers costs such as liability insurance and early retirement payouts. “We believe that we have enough to cover our expenses for the next couple of years barring anything catastrophic,” he noted. “In the last six to eight years, we’ve had some very large expenditures coming from that account” which have now decreased.

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.

“We really have to sharpen the pencils, so to speak, to make sure we can cover all the expenses,” said Meaney. “But we believe that we can do it without a voter-approved PPEL.”

District residents can vote at the Riviera Roose Community Center from noon to 8 p.m. on Tuesday. Absentee ballots must be returned to the Bremer County auditor’s office in Waverly before polls close or be postmarked by midnight Monday if mailed in.


Local
Life begins again at 40 as Waterloo African-American radio station KBBG gets second wind

WATERLOO – Radio station KBBG 88.1 FM has been a Waterloo institution for 40 years. Its new president is just opening the windows to let in some fresh air.

Former state Rep. Deborah Berry took the reins at the station late last year after the death in June of University of Northern Iowa professor Scharron Clayton. Longtime president Lou Porter retired in 2014.

It’s been a time of transition for the African-American radio station as it marks its 40th anniversary. Founded in 1977, it went on the air in the summer of 1978, broadcasting from a house on Cottage Street on Waterloo’s north end just blocks from the station’s current headquarters at Newell and Mobile streets.

Every day, Berry looks at the large portrait of station founder Jimmie Porter, who died in 2007, and hopes she’s living up to the station’s original mission to “communicate to educate” and be a resource for the community.

“We’re going to try to ‘make it local’ and showcase what’s happening throughout this community,” Berry said. “KBBG just has to be that voice for an ever-changing community. Our community’s changing. Information is information. And I think everyone can grow from that.”

She knows the station has to change with the times and audiences.

“We have to really adapt to the society that we live in today, with the competition of Sirrius XM, Internet radio and your iPhone,” Berry said.

Also, the programming has to be live and local. “We’re getting back to live bodies and live people talking about current and local affairs that affect people’s lives,” she said. “It’s working out well.”

She also has at her side Porter’s daughter, Edyce Porter, who has been at the station most of its existence. She has been a steady resource behind the scenes, but is behind the scenes no longer. Berry has made her community outreach director.

Berry and her staff are rejuvenating the station and its programming. Agency representatives and community resources might be called do shorter information segments spread through the day to catch more listeners, and more mobile listeners.

Instead of a full half-hour show with staff from Hawkeye Community College, the information is being broken into 90-second segments spread throughout the day.

Sports-talk programming. More cultural topics with Gen-X personalities. It’s revamping its website. And the station, parting with a long-standing policy, is airing hip-hop and rap while staying true to its family-oriented listener base. “As long as it’s family music, we’ll do it,” Berry said.

The station is drawing more volunteers. Its financial position is more stable. And Berry feels the station is shaking things up to remain a relevant and vibrant part of the community.

The station plans a number of activities in conjunction with its 40th anniversary. Part of that, Porter said, involves renewing and expanding its relationships with businesses, organizations and individuals.

The key is to get as many local voices as possible as the station celebrates its history.

People want to hear about people they know and topics of local interest, Berry said. For example, the station’s sports-talk programming includes an emphasis on wrestling.

“We’ve got the Dan Gable museum; why would we not do wrestling? “ Berry said. “It makes no sense not to.”

“You broaden the base and with that you broaden the possibility of getting additional supporters,” Porter said.

Special emphasis is being placed on February as Black History Month.

“But for us, of course, Black History Month is 365 days a year,” Berry said.

The station will be partnering with local groups and broadcasting live from events they may host. It will bring back former on-air personalities.

And the station is not without its challenges, fund-raising always being one of them.

“We’re community owned and operated, so we rely on our community for support. We rely on our businesses. We rely on Corporation from Public Broadcasting. And ‘viewers like you,’” Berry said.

“It’s a new direction. It’s a new KBBG,” Berry said. “The groundwork has been laid by Mr. Porter, by Lou Porter. When I came on board I was asked to move it ahead further. As long as I can guide this ship, I will guide this ship. Things are looking very good for the station.”


Education
Legislation could endanger Waterloo Schools' diversity plan

Lindaman

Sinclair

WATERLOO — A proposal in the Iowa Legislature would stop school districts like Waterloo from denying open enrollment requests based on preserving diversity.

Critics say the legislation, which has been introduced in both the House and Senate, could lead to more segregation in the schools. But proponents say parents ought to have a choice where to educate their kids.

The legislation would affect only five districts that have diversity plans — Davenport, Des Moines, Postville, Waterloo and West Liberty.

Waterloo Community Schools’ plan measures diversity by identifying the family income level of students. Those who qualify for free or reduced-priced meals are considered low income. As of last school year, nearly 66 percent of students were low income, according to district data.

“The diversity plan was not ever implemented to stop open enrollment. It was really started to create a balance in and out,” said Superintendent Jane Lindaman. For a student’s open enrollment out application to be approved, a student with a similar socio-economic status needs to open enroll into the district.

Not keeping the plan in place could result in a less-diverse higher-poverty district, she said. Citing a correlation between poverty and racial minority status, Lindaman suggested that a change could also “take us in a direction to be a more segregated community.” In addition, she believes it could negatively impact the community’s economic development.

“Removing that protection is a concern for me and it should be a concern for the community at large,” she said.

“My stance would be that there are some districts that have very unique demographics,” Lindaman added. “We value our diversity. Some districts that are unique may call for some unique legislation.”

Supporters of the legislation say families who live in districts like Waterloo ought to have the same opportunity as other families in the state.

“We should provide as many options as possible, and this is one of those,” said Drew Klein, Iowa director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group. The group has registered in favor of the proposal.

Klein says those who are worried about privileged families leaving districts should realize it’s already happening. What’s at issue, he says, is that families who can’t afford to pick up and move are having their requests denied.

“These families are far from rich,” he said.

It’s not clear yet whether the legislation will move.

Senate Education Chair Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, said last week that she still is studying the issue. She is sympathetic to families who want to open enroll but can’t because of the diversity plans.

In theory, she said, “It’s not OK” that those students don’t get the same rights as others.

“I truly understand what she is saying,” said Lindaman, but added that “equality and equity are not the same thing. My job as the superintendent really is to look at what would make our district stronger and certainly to avoid things that could cause limitations for our district.”

Ed Tibbetts of the Quad-City Times and Erin Murphy of the Lee Enterprises Des Moines Bureau contributed to this report.


Govt-and-politics
City property taxes may drop for Cedar Falls residents

CEDAR FALLS – Residential property taxes would decrease nearly 2 percent while commercial and industrial properties would see a slight increase under preliminary budget figures to be presented to the City Council at a 5 p.m. work session Monday.

City staff will review those numbers with the council, which is anticipated to set a public hearing for Feb. 19 on the budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year that begins July 1.

The council will review budget numbers that show a 1.54 percent average decrease for residential properties, using the example of a residential property with an assessed valuation of $100,000. A $500,000 commercial property and $1 million industrial property each would see increases of 0.81 percent. Multi-family residential properties would see about a 3.8 percent decrease, based on a property assessed at $500,000.

Multi-family residential properties eventually are going to be taxed the same as residential property under state tax reform legislation passed several years ago.

Residential taxes are going down because property owners will be taxed on a lower portion of their property’s assessed value under a state-established “rollback.” The total residential tax rate will increase to $11.22 per $1,000 of taxable valuation from $11.13 per $1,000, but that increase is being more than offset by the rollback. Residents are paying taxes on 55.6 percent of their property’s assessed value, compared with nearly 57 percent last year.

While the overall budget is larger, the city saw a 4 percent increase in its valuation base, most of which is due to new construction and growth across property classes in the community as opposed to revaluation of existing properties. The budget has to grow to cover expenses of providing services to accommodate that growth, city officials said.

“We were fortunate we had very good growth in our residential and multi-residential (construction) to offset that,” said Jennifer Rodenbeck, the city’s director of finance and business services.

She noted the city is not assuming it will receive any “backfill” money from the state once promised under property tax reform legislation several years ago to sustain city services if tax revenues were lost as a result of that legislation.

“With the rollback and our tax rate, it’s going to be the same as it was two years ago,” City Administrator Ron Gaines said, noting the city increased residential property taxes 1.53 percent for the current fiscal year with a lower tax rate. “It’s almost a 3 percent difference in taxes” over the two years. “That (4 percent valuation) growth really helped us this year.”

“It does show that Cedar Falls is growing,” Rodenbeck said. “I guess if you drive around you know that. But it does confirm it.”

Total proposed fiscal year 2018-19 budget expenditures are $91.7 million — actually less than $96.1 million for the current 2017-18 fiscal year. Rodenbeck said that is due to the timing of large capital projects, including the Dry Run Creek sanitary sewer, University Avenue reconstruction and the Greenhill Road extension, funded in large part with non-property-tax revenues.

The total proposed tax asking for fiscal year 2018-19 is $20.8 million versus $19.7 million in fiscal year 2017-18. That increase, about 5.5 percent, is due to increases in the city’s trust and agency and pension expenses, salary settlements and the inclusion of additional staffing positions, including about five in public safety.