On Nov. 5, for the first time in recent history, Iowans will go to the polls to vote for both city council members, mayors and school board members. In the past, school elections have been in early September.
On this historic first joint ballot, will be a referendum on extending a statewide penny sales tax for school infrastructure, first introduced through the state legislature in 1998 and voted on county-by-county. Monroe County voted for the tax by a 74 percent margin in 2004. In 2008 it became a statewide system.
Actually, the Albia Community School District was at the epicenter of the fight to bring equity to rural students because of former Superintendent Dave Sextro. Sextro (and virtually every other rural superintendent in the state) was facing difficult issues with building maintenance and replacement and became incensed when the West Des Moines School District proposed a local option penny sales tax for its urban district for a lush new football stadium and bragged that the tax would be paid mostly by people outside the district shopping at local urban malls.
Sextro and a couple of other rural superintendents took the fight to the state legislature with the simple idea that living in proximity to a shopping mall should not dictate a student’s financial worth. They won and the state created the SILO (School Infrastructure Local Option) penny sales tax to be shared equally throughout the state, regardless of rural or urban school settings.
The original penny sales tax was set to sunset in 2029 and the Iowa legislature approved a referendum (to be voted on county-by-county) to extend the tax to 2051. In that bill, voted 48-2 in the Iowa Senate and 94-4 in the House, 3.1 percent of dollars collected will go to PTER (Property Tax Equity Relief) in the school aid formula.
The school penny sales tax has a new name and acrostic SAVE (Secure an Advanced Vision for Education) and the referendum is called RSP (Revenue Purpose Statement Extension) to politicians and educators in love with capital letters.
But it’s the same penny sales tax citizens of Monroe County have been paying and enjoying the benefits from since 2004.
Specifically, it is to be used for building and remodeling school facilities, general maintenance, technology and transportation.
Ask any current or former school board member or administrator and they will tell you the Albia Community School District’s buildings and grounds, bus fleet and technology would be in rack and ruin without the penny sales tax which has contributed over $1.2 million a year to the district since it was initiated in 2004.
Consider these improvements paid for by SILO (now SAVE) statewide penny sales tax:
• The eight-lane track and field and soccer facility (prior to the tax, Albia had no track facility)
• Remodeling of the bus garage.
• The Mordan Activity Center (prior to the tax, Albia did not have a wrestling facility)
• Renovate and add on to Grant Center for students in K-2.
• Renovate Kendall for preschool and central office.
• Install new heat and air-conditioning at Lincoln Center.
• Purchase land adjacent to the high school from St. Paul’s Lutheran Church for future improvements.
• Purchase land adjacent to the south parking lot for future expansion.
• Install energy efficient LED lighting district wide.
• Support renovation of the tennis courts at Albia City Park.
• Support renovations at the Monroe County Sports Complex.
• District wide phone system.
• District wide door security system and camera system.
• District wide roof repair and replacement.
• Renovation and expansion of the JH/HS cafeteria.
In terms of general maintenance the money has been used for painting crosswalks and parking lots; interior and exterior painting; classroom furniture and office improvements; playground improvements; sidewalks, fencing, bleachers and locker room improvement; classroom doors; restroom improvements; asbestos removal; energy improvements and a sprinkler system for Ironman Field.
In terms of technology, the statewide penny sales tax has purchased one to one devices for students (iPads and Chromebooks); purchased classroom technogy (Smartboards, 3D printer); purchased laptops for staff and upgraded the computer network and wireless infrastructure.
What many districts, including Albia, are planning to do with extended SAVE funding is to borrow against future estimated earnings to pay for projects instead of taxing property.
According to Superintendent Kevin Crall and members of the Albia Community School Board, two projects are in sight for the district that will cost about $5 million. The first is to update the HVAC (heating, cooling and air quality) system in the 7-12 building, including air conditioning the entire facility. The second is remodeling a portion of the high school for new fine arts (vocal music, instrumental music and art) classrooms and rehearsal areas.
“We want people to understand that this is not a new or additional tax,” said Superintendent Crall. “I don’t like using a double negative, but if you vote against it, it will not lower your taxes. The current penny goes until 2029.
“What it does do is allow our district to refinance its current general obligation bonds, add two projects that will cost around $5 million and only finance five years beyond what we’re doing now.”
Crall added that rural schools like Albia, enjoy the penny from communities loaded with retail sales and shopping malls. “If you go to Wells Fargo to the state tournament or to Iowa City and hit the malls there after an Iowa game, a penny of the sales tax you pay in those urban communities come back home to enrich our students,” he said.
A simple majority is needed to extend the penny sales tax for school infrastructure, technology and transportation.