Letter to the Editor – Superintendent addresses lingering questions

Opinion

Editor:

Since I became Superintendent of the Fort Madison Community Public Schools almost 2 years ago, we’ve tried to keep school financial business as transparent as possible. There is nothing about the school bond and new elementary school we are not willing to share or discuss with the community. However, there is still misinformation circulating around and some questions that continue to be asked. I’ve tried to summarize these questions with answers provided below. For more information, please visit www.communitybondissue.org/fortmadison

WHY CAN’T THE TWO OLD ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS JUST BE FIXED AND RENOVATED?
The school district has diligently repaired and maintained these buildings for over 100 years! Lincoln and Richardson have many issues including these major failures: inadequate safety and security, lack of handicapped accessibility, no support for current electrical, computer, and technological needs, and outdated or non-existent heating and cooling systems. In other words, school security is compromised, students with special physical needs must be carried up flights of stairs, computers and monitors can’t be used, and when it is hot there is no air conditioning and fans can’t be used because of ancient wiring, and when it is cold the heating is so poor some students wear their coats during class. As to utility cost, it currently costs less to air condition and heat the entire middle school than the cost to just heat the old junior high and Denmark buildings combined.The cost to renovate the two schools is an estimated $42 million. That figure does not include the cost and effort to relocate the students for an entire year nor the increased utility cost over time.

If you are especially concerned about young schoolchildren’s safety, vote.

WHY IS THE NEW ELEMENTARY SCHOOL SO EXPENSIVE?
We asked the same question and unfortunately the answer is everything is more expensive these days. If you’ve priced a new custom-built home, 2018 pickup truck, or even college tuition, you’ll find that prices have sky-rocketed across the board. We are building a nice 21st century elementary school but it is by no means a palace. If you compare the features and price per sq. foot, the cost is similar to the other new public schools being built across Iowa.

MY PROPERTY TAXES ARE HIGH ENOUGH.
The only way a school district can build improved facilities is through a bond referendum. Public schools cannot, by law, fundraise like private schools can. Public schools are for everyone, and the only way to build new schools is to ask everyone to chip in. The average assessed home value in the Fort Madison area is $77,000, and the tax increase would be $2.98 a month. The link to calculate for your home is www.communitybondissue.org/fortmadison-financialinfo Also, by Iowa law, the proceeds from the bond can only be used for this new construction and furnishings. The money cannot be used for salaries or other budgetary needs.

Local property taxes were not used to build the middle school! It was built with proceeds from a unique sales tax program from the State of Iowa called SAVE.

THE MIDDLE SCHOOL WAS BUILT ON A SWAMPY FLOOD PLAIN. WHY BUILD OUT THERE AGAIN?
As with many homes, businesses, and buildings on the west side of Fort Madison, the land owned by the FMCSD on 48th and Bluff Road is within the 500 year flood plain. However, the middle school was built on an elevated area to sit above the flood plain level. The elementary school will also be elevated. We could not hold insurance otherwise. Site changes were engineered for required drainage to the FMMS and are part of the design for the new elementary school. Also, the rumors about foundation and structural issues at FMMS are false. There was an issue with the gym floor several years ago. Just like a wet basement, water seepage from the ground was not properly sealed. The contractor responsible corrected the problem and there have been no water issues in the several years since it was resolved.

I SUPPORT A NEW ELEMENTARY SCHOOL FOR THE KIDS BUT DON’T WANT TO PAY TO RELOCATE THE BASEBALL AND SOFTBALL FIELDS.
We actually need to make room at the high school by relocating the baseball and softball fields to the campus at 48th and Bluff Road. It would be much less expensive to move the playing fields now during the construction and landscape engineering that must take place there for the new elementary school. The current space behind FMHS is very inefficiently used. By removing the baseball/softball areas we will free up space for current use and future expansion at the high school. In the near future, that space will be turned into dedicated practice fields for the marching band and football teams. And someday, with the plan of public-private financing, the school board hopes to use that space to build a fine arts and music performance auditorium that Fort Madison so desperately needs.

WHY NOT JUST USE THE BAXTER SPORTS COMPLEX BALL FIELDS?
Baxter Sports Complex was designed and created to promote and service youth sports in the area. The softball and baseball fields were specifically built for younger children up to 8th grade. The field dimensions do not meet Iowa High School Athletic Association regulations and cannot be used for official high school games.

WHERE ARE THE BLUEPRINTS? WHAT ARE WE GETTING FOR THE MONEY?
At the start of this process in 2016 there was a community group of thirty volunteers that met in four different sections before the first bond vote and consisted of current teachers, former teachers, business owners, administrators and board members. These groups brainstormed needs and features for a new elementary school including a schematic sketch. This “footprint sketch” was used in promotional materials with the following characteristics: a building for 650-700 students, classrooms for each grade, rooms for special needs education, an art and music room, gym for PE and performances, library, commons spaces, designated space for lunch separate from gym, office space, kitchen and bathrooms. The group unanimously voted for a single story building. Based on this input, a budget was drawn up by our experienced and Iowa- based architect firm. After a successful bond referendum vote, further input will be gathered from the community. These final refinements will be given to the project managing architects who will draw up the detailed blueprints. These blueprints will be used by prospective contractors to bid for work on the project. Blueprints are expensive, and also to allow the public further input into the design, the school board decided, like other districts, to not order them until the bond was passed.

MY FAMILY SENDS OUR CHILDREN TO PRIVATE SCHOOL. WHY SHOULD I CARE ABOUT THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS?
In the United States, the overwhelming majority of Catholic children attend public school. The Holy Family parish that oversees Fort Madison, West Point, and the surrounding community is filled with very generous donors. This community has come together to raise money for not only a new private elementary school, but also for large donations to Haiti, Africa, Central America, and the rest of the world through church charities. There are a great many Catholic children attending public school that are in need of your support. The school bond referendum is an opportunity to help these children right here in Fort Madison, Iowa, USA.

I DON’T HAVE CHILDREN CURRENTLY IN SCHOOL. WHY SHOULD I CARE ABOUT THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS?
Fort Madison needs new families. The Fort Madison area population continues to shrink and grow older. That not only means our tax base is getting smaller but also the pool of available skilled blue-collar and white-collar workers is also decreasing. Good public schools is one of the main criteria families use when choosing where to move and raise children. More families mean more money and services, and also increases the available workforce. A larger number of potential employees makes Fort Madison more desirable to companies looking to build or relocate. We’ve had several families move to Fort Madison from surrounding cities, wanting the small-town lifestyle here in Fort Madison but keeping their jobs to make the 30 minute commute. A new elementary school makes this a more desirable “bedroom community” which will greatly improve Fort Madison’s economic development.
Also did you know that the Fort Madison Community School District is one of the largest employers in the area? Our teachers and staff are a vital and stable economic core to our community. Every student enrolled in the FMCSD adds roughly $7,000 to the budget that pays these salaries. Every student lost costs the district that same amount and forces layoffs and hiring freezes.

If you care about the future of Fort Madison, and one of the largest and most stable employers in the area, please remember on April 3rd that a strong and healthy public school system benefits everyone.

Erin M. Slater Ed.S.
Superintendent, FMCSD

About Chuck Vandenberg 3156 Articles
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