CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — As the Cedar Rapids School District continues its facilities master plan, one deviation from the practice so far of demolishing a school to build a new one in its place is now in the hands of the School Board.
A task force examined whether Harrison Elementary, 1310 11th St. NW, should be renovated, or if Madison Elementary, 1341 Woodside Drive NW, should be demolished in order to build a new school on its site as the two schools are combined.
The recommendation of the group, to upgrade Harrison, was presented to the School Board during its April 10, 2023 meeting. The board will vote on the recommendation after further community input.
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Already, Jackson and Coolidge elementary schools and the Arthur Elementary annex have been demolished to build larger schools, with plans to close walkable neighborhood schools, such as Garfield Elementary, 1201 Maplewood Dr. NE.
Robin Randall of Legat Architects, the firm hired to gather information on both options, said costs were similar for either project: more than $28 million for a new school at the Madison site, or more than $29 million to upgrade Harrison.
Harrison would be completely improved with a new roof, masonry repairs, upgraded windows and doors, and an addition built for a larger gymnasium and other spaces. An existing 1960s addition and powerhouse structure would be demolished.
Chris Gates, buildings and grounds manager for the Cedar Rapids Community School District, noted that some factors taken into account could not be quantified, such as the historic nature of Harrison, which opened in 1930 with its unique Gothic Tudor design.
“Harrison had some intangible things that you couldn’t put on a piece of paper,” he said.
The School Board would ultimately decide the fate of Madison, which potentially could be sold. The Board voted in January 2018 to close eight elementary schools, build 10 new “mega” schools that would each house 600 students and keep three newer schools, but no plans were made for buildings that will be closed.
School Board members who have so far not acknowledged the environmental impact of demolishing three school buildings, with more under the master plan proposal, questioned why the Harrison site would be less energy efficient.
Randall said upgrades could be made, such as adding insulation, to mitigate that.
School Board member Dexter Merschbrock suggested that the School District wasn’t using its walkable neighborhood schools to its advantage and rather than closing the smaller schools to build new, money from the 1 percent sales tax stream known as “SAVE,” could be used to upgrade all of the schools, including secondary schools, which will require a bond issue and an increase in property taxes for proposed improvements, as all of the SAVE funding is being spent on new elementary schools.
“Now we see it’s possible to renovate an existing building,” he said. “We could be missing an opportunity as a district. These could bring people to our schools.”
Journalist Cindy Hadish served on the Cedar Rapids School District’s Harrison/Madison Task Force
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