The Council Bluffs Community School District Board of Directors will vote Tuesday on a resolution calling for a referendum on the issuance of $37 million in general obligation bonds to finance renovations at Kirn and Wilson Middle Schools.
Members will consider the resolution during their meeting at 6:30 p.m. at district headquarters at the Omni Centre Business Park.
If the item is approved, the school district will formally request that the Pottawattamie County Auditor put the measure on the ballot in a special election Sept. 11.
Citizens who have been conducting a petition drive for the referendum think they have collected the 265 signatures needed to trigger a vote and probably enough to meet their goal of getting 300 signatures, according to Barry Cleaveland, one of the volunteers. The 265 signatures would equal 25 percent of the votes cast in the 2017 school election.
“If we haven’t gone over, we’re very, very close,” Cleaveland said Friday.
The district must then submit the signatures and paperwork to the Pottawattamie County Auditor’s Office no later than July 27.
School officials had hoped the Iowa Legislature would extend the one-cent sales tax for schools — Secure an Advanced Vision for Education, currently set to expire in 2029 — so the district could bond against sales tax revenues for 20 years. But while the Iowa House overwhelmingly approved a bill during its 2018 session to extend the tax through 2049, the corresponding bill in the Senate never made it to the floor. Now, school officials aren’t sure whether they can count on the Legislature to pass it during the 2019 session.
“Even some of our local legislators — they were super supportive and tried to drive it through and couldn’t get it passed — even they’re saying ‘you have to take care of your priorities,’ and we have some priorities that are pretty important,” said school board President Troy Arthur. “I think we just feel the time is right to see if the community will support this.”
The school district has bonded against the revenue from the tax to make major improvements to district facilities. That helped finance renovation of the district’s elementary schools and two high schools, as well as the construction of College View Elementary School and reconstruction of Carter Lake Elementary. It is counting on the revenue to help pay off those bonds.
“The district receives $8.6 million from the sales tax annually, 67 percent of which is used to pay the bonds issued for the prior work,” Superintendent Vickie Murillo said. “It is also used for repairs, large equipment purchases, technology and construction projects, like the Abraham Lincoln High School parking lot, the initial renovation of the Trades Academy classroom/lab spaces in both high schools and the addition of the safety vestibule at the main entrance to Thomas Jefferson High School, among other projects.”
If the tax is allowed to expire, revenue that could be used to finance the middle school work would be limited, Murillo said.
“The anticipated SAVE revenue through 2029 is not enough to pay down the existing bonds and cover the cost of the middle school renovations,” she said. “General obligation bonds are the only other source of revenue for renovation projects.”
Said Arthur, “We don’t have a ton of funding that isn’t relegated to certain things.”
In addition, some of that might have to be used to cover unexpected repairs and maintenance needs, he said.
At this point, school officials are not of a mind to wait and see what happens in the Legislature’s next session.
“If we wait to see if the SAVE is extended, there would be a two or three-year delay in the renovations, which means the costs would continue to grow due to inflation,” Murillo said. “In addition, the delay would mean our middle school students would have to wait longer to have the opportunity to have an educational experience in updated learning environments that are safer, more accessible and on par with all of the other school buildings.”
So what happens if a bond issue passes and the Legislature also extends the tax?
“If SAVE is extended, the district will evaluate the proposed amount in the general obligation bond and look for means to lower the amount of money borrowed,” Murillo said.
A 20-year general obligation bond in the amount of $37 million would add $31 of property tax annually on an average-priced home, or less than 10 cents per day.
The last time a bond election was held for the Council Bluffs Community School District was in 1996.