CR Schools, the Facilities Plan, Setting Expectations and Bureaucracy

It's Doug Wagner. I recall the beginning of the Cedar Rapids Community School District's (CRCSD) Facilities Planning process, because I was a member of it. I wanted to stay on and involved, because I would be better able to give my listeners a front row seat to the deliberations and process involved in figuring out how to best use district assets in the future. Unfortunately, most of the meetings ended up being held on Tuesdays, on which I have standing commitments, and that didn't come to fruition. Meanwhile, the plan moved forward and was presented, some time ago, to the CRCSD Board of Education (School Board). This plan would close "eight of the district's 23 elementary schools over the next 20 years," according to Molly Duffy's article in the 2-26-20 Gazette.

After reviewing the plan, it seemed reasonable, although I was saddened that the elementary my youngest attended would have been one of the schools closed. One of the things I noted, and even appreciated, is how much revenue could come into the district for the sale of the properties (building either intact or not), and the ability the City of Cedar Rapids and CRCSD could impose development standards on the sale and use of the property to keep it within confines of the mostly residential areas within which they set..

Dexter Merschbrock was not a fan of the plan, and he ran successfully for a seat on the School Board. At a recent meeting of the School Board, Mr. Merschbrock was the lone dissenting vote to schedule a public hearing on the funding necessary to build a new Jackson Elementary. At the meeting, Merschbrock asked if the School Board could schedule a work session about the facilities plan and have discussion prior to a public hearing. He seems to think that School Board members haven't had enough discussion on the plan itself. Now, I'm not sure if there was a lot of discussion prior to Mr. Merschbrock election, but I'm thinking there may not have been. I'm also thinking that if there was any discussion by sitting members of the School Board, it might have been prior to the election, but I may be wrong.

According to the same Molly Duffy story, and at the same recent meeting I previously referred to, School Board President, Nancy Humbles, told Mr. Merschbrock that he suggest the work session in writing. Meanwhile, back at the bean counters, David Nicholson, who is the CRCSD Executive Director of Business Services, pushed to pass the motion to set the public hearing, saying the potential push back in time would negatively impact both the timeline and budget of the project.

A number of things to discuss here:

  1. Molly Duffy's writing is crystal clear in this piece. The reader can get a clear understanding of each person's perspective, and I can almost hear their voices as I read the story
  2. These comments have nothing to do with whether or not I feel the plan is right or wrong or could or couldn't work
  3. Mr. Merschbrock running for office with a major emphasis on the issue of the facilities plan should have forced CRCSD executive staff to make themselves available for deeper conversations between him and them. If that happened, it sure doesn't feel like it after reading the story. If he didn't force the issue to create a space for those conversations, the fault lies equally upon Mr. Merschbrock
  4. I have met Nancy Humbles. She is a very nice person to speak with and seems genuinely considerate. However, her default reaction to bureaucratize the situation is why people detest government at all levels. There is no reason that a sitting School Board member should have to submit a request such as that in writing when they make the request in front of the entire body, plus members of the executive staff who may be able to take action on the request. I worked for what may be the most bureaucracy laden organization on the face of the planet, the US House of Representatives. Even they would not require a member to submit a written request for an action, although most members of that deliberative body would do so...just because there are 435 of them and not just 7 elected members, as in the case of the CRCSD School Board
  5. The executive staff at CRCSD should be better able to anticipate the needs of the elected officials who vote on and approve the actions which they are bound to execute. For a hired executive, in the form of Mr. Nicholson, to force the issue forward by putting a deadline based on creating a contract with an architect, is the tail wagging the dog. I can hear it now, "But Doug, these elected officials don't understand all of the day-to-day intricacies we deal with in executing the plans they have identified." Sure, they may not. But it's YOUR job to help them understand, including the timelines and consequences of not following those timelines. And, you need to do it ahead of time. NOTE: The estimated cost of the facilities plan, which was approved two years ago by the School Board, has increased by nearly 38% to some $309 million
  6. Finally, when you are talking about that sort of money, you had better slow down and review the numbers, the time frame, your priorities, and your plans to execute both the physical infrastructure portion and the public relations portion of the facilities plan. Just because you have a plan and a prior School Board agreed to it doesn't mean that any person elected to that body is required to treat it as a fait accompli. In fact, if they are properly performing their duties, School Board members should be consistently asking themselves about how this plan may work better, more effectively, and more efficiently

Just my was a heavy enough of an item that I felt compelled to write over 1,000 words on it. What do you think? Leave me a note or email back to me: douglaswagner(at)