Voters in the Iowa Quad-Cities will weigh in on two major school ballot measures Tuesday. The two measures are asking taxpayers for different things — Bettendorf School District is pursuing a General Obligations Bond that is set to go toward athletic facilities, “classroom modernizations” and new classroom space, while Davenport Community School District is pursuing a Physical Plant and Equipment Levy (PPEL) that, if it were to fail, would put the district’s already strained general fund in even more of a bind.
In Bettendorf, some residents worry that the school district has not been fully transparent in how and when the bond was presented to voters. And in Davenport, recent financial strife in the form of a mandatory $13 million budget cut over the next two fiscal years has made the PPEL essential. If voters don't support the levy, those financial challenges will become even more critical.
No matter the election results Tuesday, the two school ballot measures are guaranteed to shape the future of schools in the Iowa Quad-Cities. So what exactly are in the ballot measures, and what can voters expect once the votes are tallied?
How do schools budget?
School funds are divided into “separate buckets,” said Dallon Christensen, director of finance and business services for Bettendorf. General fund money can technically be used for anything in the school district but “no school district, realistically, is going to do that,” he said.
“Especially when 80 percent of your general fund is spent on salaries, to go and build anything using general fund money would be very difficult,” Bettendorf Superintendent Mike Raso said. “That’s why those other pots were brought in, why we have the PPEL and now the sales tax. You just can’t do it with the general fund, with the funding we get.”
Though districts cannot use PPEL dollars toward general fund budgets, the two are not completely unrelated. In Davenport, PPEL dollars have been used to complete projects such as installing LED lighting, which in turns saves money on the electrical bill that is charged through the general fund. According to Dawn Saul, communications and media relations at Davenport, changing the lights has saved the district 30 percent on electrical use.
Claudia Wood, Davenport Chief Financial Officer, said the “drastic reductions” required by the School Budget Review Committee — $13 million over the next two fiscal years, because of overspending on its spending authority — will come out of the spending authority for the general fund.
“Now that we can pay for it out of PPEL, we want to do that because it relieves that expenditure out of the general fund, which is where we need to reduce our expenditures,” she said.
G.O. bonds, like PPEL, are funded by a property levy and go toward the general fund.
In the past three years, Margaret Buckton, a partner at Iowa School Finance Information Services, said the state has seen the number of districts asking for bonds “tick up” because the state-wide penny sales tax is set to expire in 2029.
“Back before we had a local option tax, before 1998, there were 45 to 55 bond elections every year — that’s out of, at that time, probably 370 districts,” she said. “When we got the local-option tax, that dropped to about 25. When we got the state-wide penny, 10 to 15 districts per year might call for bonds.”
Of the 29 districts in Iowa to issue bond elections during the 2017-2018 school year, 22 had their proposals approved by voters.
Bettendorf G.O. Bond
While PPEL funds can pay for many of the same things as a G.O. bond, Buckton said there are advantages to pursuing a bond instead.
“You can do it all at once; with PPEL, it’s piecemeal,” she said. “Especially today, with fairly low interest rates … it’s a pretty good time to think about school construction.”
The Bettendorf School District is asking for residents to vote for a general obligation (G.O.) bond for up to $30 million on Tuesday. The bond includes projects intended to “renovate, remodel, improve, furnish and equip” the high school, middle school and Herbert Hoover, Paul Norton and Neil Armstrong elementary schools.
The bond requires a 60 percent supermajority to pass.
Christensen and Superintendent Mike Raso said the estimated timeline for the projects is three to six years, with projects being “phased” by type, location and priority.
But some Bettendorf residents, including Joanna Doerder, are unconvinced that everything on the list of projects is an immediate need.
“It seems to me that this is a way to get all that they want, right now. It’s very impatient,” she said. “It’s very pushy on the taxpayer. If given five to eight years, they could probably do the majority of these things with the other taxes they bring in.”
But without the bond, Raso said it would take between 12 and 15 years to accomplish everything on the list.
Athletics — including high school facilities, a pool upgrade and an athletic track and grass field at the middle school — account for 37.8 percent of the current plans for the $30 million bond. Another of Doerder’s concerns was whether the district had been transparent about the bond money going toward athletics.
“I have no concern with any item on the list. I think they are all, and a lot of us think, that everything on this list should absolutely be done, primarily because most of it is maintenance and security,” she said. “Even the athletics facilities, I don’t think, are things that shouldn’t get done. I don’t have an objection to any of them, frankly. What I do have an objection to is just the fact that they’re presenting this as an investment in our kids’ future and their education and it’s really a way to get it all, get it now and get the taxpayers to pay for it immediately.”
Bettendorf is land-locked, so its growth depends on open-enrollment, which Raso said was “huge” for the district, and that the district needs to stay “competitive.”
“As new families move into the area, they’re looking not only at our educational system, but maybe it comes down to a gym, or a fine arts program, or even a particular program,” he said.
One item on the list — more secure entrances at Herbert Hoover and Paul Norton Elementary Schools — will be happening “even without the bond.”
“Those will be done whether the bond is passed or not,” Raso said. “If the bond is passed, it will allow us to do more things in those buildings that are more connected to the front entrance.”
The district already approved to borrow $10 million over 10 years against the sales tax revenue to complete replacing the high school’s HVAC, and to construct Grant Wood and Mark Twain elementaries.
“To do the rest of the projects, and to do them in a shorter period of time, the general obligation bond helps do that,” Raso said.
The district recently completed the construction of Grant Wood Elementary, and broke ground on another new elementary school, Mark Twain. Both were funded through sales taxes; Grant Wood came in under budget at $13.7 million, below the original price tag of $16.7 million.
Bettendorf initially planned to renovate the existing Thomas Jefferson Elementary, but Raso said since those renovations were going to cost around $9 million, the board decided to build a new elementary school — Mark Twain — instead.
“In the long term, it was just the better investment,” Raso said.
At the community forum Nov. 27, several attendees questioned whether everything on the list was a “need.” But others, including Doerder, readily acknowledge that everything on the school’s list of projects is necessary. They just question whether a G.O. bond is the right way to fund it.
“I think we need them all,” Raso said. “If we didn’t, I don’t think it should be up there.”