BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – In a two-hour morning tour of two Fort Madison schools, two area lawmakers saw the impact of the state’s 1-cent local option sales tax.
State Rep. Dave Heaton (R-Mt. Pleasant) and State Sen. Rich Taylor (D-Mt. Pleasant) spent close to two hours walking through the halls of Richardson Elementary School and Fort Madison Middle School in Fort Madison on Friday morning. The two then joined Rep. Jerry Kearns (D-Keokuk) for a legislative luncheon at the Palms Supper Club.
Fort Madison Community School District Superintendent Erin Slater hosted the tour at Richardson with Principal Emily Settles and at the middle school with Principal Todd Dirth.
The tour at Richardson focused on the hurdles in place that hindered contemporary learning including handicap obstacles and moving classrooms around the school to accommodate students in wheel chairs, poor structural conditions, a total lack of space for collaborative learning, which is at the heart of most new school designs in the country.
“The message today was that we appreciate and have utilized those SAVE dollars well in the past and to show what kind of building we’re dealing with here,” Settles said. The middle school is a beautiful facility and its up to speed as far as technology and learning. If we could continue to have those SAVE dollars we could see more improvements in the district. I think the focus would turn to high school with SAVE dollars if we could continue to make some needed improvements over there.”
The S.A.V.E., or Secure an Advanced Vision for Education, is the funding stream that was called the L.O.S.T. or Local Option Sales Tax, when the middle school was built.
According to the Iowa Department of Education’s website, “Moneys received for school infrastructure purposes shall be utilized solely for school infrastructure needs or school district property tax relief. ‘School infrastructure’ means those activities for which a school district is authorized to contract indebtedness and issue general obligation bonds under Iowa Code section 296.1, except those activities related to a teacher’s or superintendent’s home or homes. These activities include the construction, reconstruction, repair, demolition work, purchasing, or remodeling of schoolhouses, stadiums, gyms, field houses, and bus garages, and the procurement of schoolhouse construction sites and making of site improvements and those activities for which revenues under Iowa Code section 298.3 or section 300.2 may be spent. Additionally, ‘school infrastructure’ includes the payment or retirement of outstanding bonds previously issued for school infrastructure purposes, and the payment or retirement of bonds issued under Iowa Code section 423E.5.”
The current SAVE authorization law is set to expire in 2029 and proponents of the funding stream are hoping to extend it to 2049. Current bills would limit funding use to educational improvements and would place limits on how the funds could be used for athletic facilities and program spending. It would also incrementally increase the portion used for property tax reduction.
Slater wanted to show what SAVE dollars have done for Fort Madison schools, in a stark contrast to what kind of buildings the district is currently dealing with.
She told Taylor and Heaton there is community committee in the process of trying, for the third time, to get a referendum passed to get a new school built on the campus with the middle school. The middle school was constructed totally with moneys from the sales tax option and had zero impact on property tax dollars.
“We just wanted to show you what that tax did for this district and how important it is,” Slater told the two prior to going into the middle school.
Inside, Dirth showed the group the advantages to the contemporary learning facility including athletic facilities, a new state-of-the-art HVAC system that new board member Tim Wondra said is cheaper to run with all the district’s 4th through 8th grade students, than either the Denmark or former middle schools.
“I used to teach at Van Buren in Keosauqua 55 years ago and the school I was in there was in better shape that the one I was in at Richardson,” Heaton said.
“So it was pretty icky and I just hope that we can respond and help create a much better environment. Because then we went to the middle school and it’s a fabulous facility. It’s so important to reinforce that process and give every kid the opportunity to learn as best they can. It’s a world of compete, compete, compete and those with the skills sets necessary to compete will have that advantage.”
Slater said extending the funding stream is critical to the needed improvements in the district.
“Extending the SAVE dollars is hugely important for us because it would allow us to focus on the middle school and some of the upgrades and challenges, because the SAVE dollar extension would not generate enough money to build the elementary,” she said.
“You’ll see some of the challenges we have in the Richardson building have been completely taken care of in this building.”