Flipping through the pages of Where People Count Most: 150 Years of News and Images from The Progress Review, the book we published in 2005 in anticipation of La Porte City’s sesquicentennial celebration, I discovered the following commentary. In it, the Editor of The Progress Review at the time addressed how the physical condition of public school buildings can affect people’s perception of the greater community:
“The condition of the public school of any community is very properly regarded as a standard by which that community can be judged. If the buildings used for school purposes are old, dilapidated and poorly kept, this fact indicates a carelessness on the part of the community concerning the importance of school matters…If however, the school buildings are modern, attractive, comfortable and commodious, they furnish an evidence of the progressive spirit of the people in the all important question of education, and indicate an active interest in the proper training of the young. Good school buildings, supplied with first-class teachers mean more than an education for the children of the community. They speak volumes for the intelligence and thrift of the people, and serve as an attraction to persons seeking new homes. The Progress Review refers with pride to the excellent public school building of La Porte City and the thoroughness of the work done within its walls.”
If you’re a regular reader of this publication and can’t recall seeing this commentary before, have no fear. This particular essay first appeared in a commemorative edition of The Progress Review published in 1895. Fast forward more than 120 years and the question of maintaining school buildings is still a relevant one today.
On September 12, voters in the Union Community School District will elect four individuals to serve on the seven member School Board. With four candidates running unopposed, eligible voters might be tempted to sit this election out. Please don’t.
In addition to the four candidates seeking office, the ballot includes a question the Union School Board is putting before the voters. How that question is answered will have a lot to say about future decisions the School Board will have to make regarding the ongoing maintenance of the school district’s facilities. The measure before the voters, if approved, authorizes the School Board to use a combination of property taxes and an income surtax to fund a physical plant and equipment levy (PPEL). The district has had such a levy in place for many years. Aging school buildings and a recent trend of declining enrollment has the School Board asking for a voter approved PPEL, which could generate as much as a half million dollars annually. But with the additional revenue come restrictions on how it can be used. Limited to infrastructure and maintenance-related projects, the voter approved PPEL could not be used for salaries and benefits, for example.
Union Community School District’s lineage is replete with support for excellent, well-maintained facilities, while simultaneously showing respect for the taxpayers’ pocketbooks. When La Porte City’s school merger with Mt. Auburn came in 1947, Harold Matt was Superintendent of Schools. During his tenure, the new high school was built in 1954. Mr. Matt also gets credited for the completion of La Porte City Elementary School, which was somehow built without imposing a bond issue on the taxpayers, a concept unheard of in modern times. Since the La Porte City school district’s formal merge with Dysart-Geneseo to create Union Community Schools in 1992, the Board of Education has invested heavily in the upkeep and enhancement of its facilities in both La Porte City and Dysart. The high school has grown in size and looks quite different today than it did to those who graduated there in 1955. Each of the other schools in the district have been improved over time, as well, with all of the buildings now climate-controlled.
Yet, throughout all of these changes, the school district continues to maintain one of the lower tax rates in the state, lower than two-thirds of the school districts in Iowa. As the district looks to the future and begins to calculate the costs related to its aging infrastructure, there are legitimate concerns about where the funding to pay for roof repairs and replacement, updating HVAC systems and other major projects will be found. These are not issues that can be ignored indefinitely.
The Union School Board should be commended for their proactive efforts to address these concerns sooner, rather than later. There are three reasons why the voter-approved PPEL is a responsible way to finance the current and future needs of the school district’s physical plant and equipment. One: Over its ten year lifespan, specific restrictions limit how PPEL revenue can be used. Two: A balance of the property tax and income surtax used to finance the voter approved PPEL does not place an undue burden on property owners. And while the School Board cannot guarantee other portions of the overall tax levy will be reduced to help offset the increase created by the voter approved PPEL, specifically the management and cash reserve levies, the stated desire to do so has credibility given the district’s historical track record of maintaining a low property tax rate. Three: The voter approved PPEL is revisited each year when the school district conducts a public hearing to certify its budget. That affords taxpayers the opportunity for input when the School Board representatives they have elected are determining how much PPEL revenue will be needed for the coming year.
“The condition of the public school of any community is very properly regarded as a standard by which that community can be judged.”
On Tuesday, September 12, the Union Community School Board members will get an answer to the question they have posed on the ballot. How our communities will be judged in the future depends on the answer we give them. Make sure your vote is counted.