CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — With no public hearing and little indication that a vote would even be taken at its April 24 meeting, the Cedar Rapids School Board voted to demolish Harrison Elementary, considered to be the city’s most architecturally significant elementary school.
The Harrison/Madison Elementary School Phase 1 was labeled as an “update” on the School Board agenda, but the board voted, with only one member opposed, to demolish the school, not because of any deficiencies in the structurally sound building, but just to construct a new school on the same site at 1310 11th St. NW.
Board members Cindy Garlock, Jennifer Neumann, Nancy Humbles, Jennifer Borcherding, Marcy Roundtree and president David Tominsky voted in favor of tearing down the school, which opened in 1930. Only Dexter Merschbrock, who cited a survey that did not indicate the school might be demolished, was opposed.
Demolishing the school was never considered an option as a task force spent months researching data regarding the district’s proposal to combine Madison and Harrison schools.
Merschbrock said he listened to Madison educators, who have been using all of the latest collaborative teaching methods, even in their small school, which rates among the highest in Cedar Rapids. He asked if the 1 percent sales tax stream known as “SAVE,” which is funding the demolitions and new schools, would be better spent upgrading all of the schools, investing in solar energy and other ways to provide more funding for educators.
Of the seven members of the public who addressed the board regarding Harrison, none said they favored demolishing the school.
Jeff Weissenberger, who attended Harrison, said the board didn’t include other factors, such as busing Harrison students during the construction project, in their costs.
“This is baffling to me,” said Weissenberger, who attended Harrison. “This is a part of our neighborhood.”
Maura Pilcher, a member of the Harrison/Madison task force, said the demolition of Harrison was never even considered as an option. The committee began meeting in November and its recommendation to upgrade Harrison and construct an addition was given to the School Board earlier this month.
Cedar Rapids Historian Mark Stoffer Hunter noted that Harrison has a particularly high degree of architectural integrity.
He applauded the district for not demolishing Garfield and Arthur elementary schools, even as the new Trailside Elementary is being built to replace those two schools.
Stoffer Hunter, who also served on the task force, said Harrison would have been upgraded inside, “with all the benefits of new,” while keeping the architecturally significant exterior under the committee’s recommendation.
Terry Philips, who works in historic rehabilitation throughout Iowa, pointed to the higher amount of local labor involved in renovations vs. new construction, resulting in a greater economic impact for Cedar Rapids and more opportunities to provide local jobs.
Philips noted that the carbon footprint of the current Harrison building “is virtually nothing.”
“Climate change is real,” he said, citing the environmental costs of demolitions. “I think it’s the duty of the School Board to be aware of that.”
Jon Galbraith, Director of Operations for the School District, cited the cost of renovating Harrison of more than $29 million vs. building a new school at the Madison site at 1341 Woodside Drive NW at more than $28 million.
Although the task force had never been told what a new school at Harrison would cost, Galbraith came up with a figure of $28.8 million, which includes demolition. Harrison will remain during the 2023-2024 school year, and students will be relocated in 2024-2025.
He said transportation would be provided to students at no cost to their families, but that cost was not factored into the $28.8 million.
With its unique English Tudor and Gothic design by Cedar Rapids architect Harry Hunter, the two-story red brick building is the most architecturally significant of the city’s elementary schools, and includes an interior mural in the foyer, created by artist William Henning, a student of renowned artist Grant Wood.
After hearing from Stoffer Hunter and other experts on why the building is considered historically significant, School Board member Jennifer Borcherding demonstrated how much she was paying attention, as she asked Galbraith what makes Harrison historic.
“Is it just because it’s old?” she asked.
Galbraith pointed to what Save CR Heritage and other experts noted about the building’s unique architecture and added that the history of Harrison would be honored in the new building.
Joanie McMahon, a board member of Save CR Heritage, told the School Board that honoring the history of the school by tearing it down would be comparable to shooting an elephant to display its tusks. “Both are contradictory,” she said.
Journalist Cindy Hadish served on the Cedar Rapids School District’s Harrison/Madison Task Force.