Credibility is oh so fragile, and officials in Iowa’s largest school district dented theirs.
Even people who don’t live in Des Moines should be troubled by what occurred, because there is a good chance, come January, the Iowa Legislature will respond in ways that could affect every other school district in the state.
In the Nov. 5 school election, the Des Moines school district asked voters to approve a higher property tax levy for the district’s building and equipment needs. The higher physical plant and equipment levy will bring in an additional $6.5 million a year.
Earlier this year, Superintendent Thomas Ahart complained about the Legislature’s inadequate funding for K-12 schools. He said that was forcing the district to close an administrative office building and the Lincoln Rails Academy, a freshman-only school that reduces congestion at Lincoln High School, one of the district’s five comprehensive high schools.
Detail #1: The school district has accumulated just shy of $100 million that can only be spent on school building needs and property tax relief. The money comes from the statewide 1 percent sales tax called SAVE, short for Secure an Advanced Vision for Education.
Detail #2: The district was wrapping up negotiations with Drake University for construction of a $19.5 million, 4,000-seat soccer stadium on the Drake campus that they would share, with the Des Moines district providing $15 million for the project.
On election day, Des Moines voters, having been kept in the dark about these two details, overwhelmingly approved the higher physical plant and equipment levy, with 64 percent favoring it. One week later, Ahart and Drake President Marty Martin rolled out plans for the new soccer stadium, complete with architects’ sketches, a logo and a lengthy Q&A.
It’s not as if the Des Moines public schools have not had a place to play their football games or soccer matches.
Four of the five high schools have their own football stadiums that they will continue to own — and pay to maintain — even under the deal with Drake.
The high school without its own stadium plays its games at Drake Stadium, where the university’s football team plays.
The high schools, and Drake, too, play their soccer matches at the Cownie Soccer Complex, a 12-field facility owned by the city of Des Moines. The Cownie complex is not some rinky-dink layout. The state high school boys’ and girls’ soccer tournaments are played there.
Earlier this year, before the project at Drake was announced, the city said it wants to double the size of Cownie by adding 12 soccer fields with artificial turf so Des Moines can attract more Midwest youth tournaments and not have events washed out by rain.
The reaction to the Drake deal was swift — and not surprising.
State Sen. Jake Chapman, an Adel Republican who leads the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said of the use of $15 million in school sales tax money for the soccer facility, “That’s crazy.”
Sen. Herman Quirmbach, of Ames, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, said, “I certainly value extracurricular activities. But they’re extracurricular. Curricular should come first.”
Graham Gillette, a former school board member, put it bluntly: “The infrastructure needs at district school buildings used day in and day out by students and the community should take precedence over constructing another facility to shine under the Friday night lights.”
The statewide school sales tax was scheduled to expire in 2029. But the Legislature voted this year to extend the tax to 2051.
This is why residents of school districts outside of Des Moines should be uneasy about the Drake project: Chapman told the Des Moines Register, “I am absolutely open to considering new changes when you see something like this happening.”
Art Wittmack, president of the Taxpayers Association of Central Iowa, which endorsed the higher physical plant and equipment levy in Des Moines, said, “Taxpayers hear about insufficient funding for education, and yet there seems to be funds available for stadiums. Boy, the optics on this deal are bad.”
Yes, bad optics.
The nearly $20 million price tag for the new stadium exceeds what many rural Iowa school districts spend for a new high school.
With the Des Moines school district having a nest egg of almost $100 million squirreled away, members of the Legislature and Gov. Kim Reynolds should ask themselves whether they were too hasty in approving the sales tax extension.
Taxpayers throughout Iowa should pepper lawmakers and the governor with letters, emails and phone calls telling them the sales tax law should be amended to require a vote of the people if sales tax money is going to be spent on sports facilities.
And taxpayers in the Des Moines district should grill Ahart and demand to know why they were kept in the dark when they were asked to raise their property taxes.
As I’ve said many times, government is not going to build credibility with the public by engaging in secrecy and spin.