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When and where do I vote?

New laws create many ways to vote on school referendum Sept. 10

On Sept. 10, 2019, West Branch Community Schools will ask registered voters in the district to go to the polls to vote on a referendum that would allow the district to secure funding to pay for facility improvements.

Sept. 10 isn’t the first opportunity to cast votes in the election.

The first chance will be on Aug. 21 and 22 from 4 to 8 p.m. There is a change this year that affects where residents will vote.

  • Cedar County residents will vote at Hoover Elementary in the library.

  • Johnson County residents will vote at the Iowa City Church of Christ, 4643 American Legion Rd SE, Iowa City.

This change is the result of a new law that went into effect on July 1 that requires residents to vote at a polling location in their county of residence. Absentee ballot request forms will be available for both Cedar County and Johnson County West Branch residents at the Hoover Elementary Library on Aug. 21 and 22.

Absentee ballots are available by request now through Aug. 30 at 5 p.m. The auditor will begin mailing requested ballots beginning Aug. 12. To vote via absentee ballot, ballots must be returned to the auditor by Sept. 10. Absentee ballots may only be turned in at the auditor’s office and voters have until the close of polls on election night to do so. To request ballots, go to www.cedarcounty.org/offices/auditor/auditorforms.htm or https://www.johnson-county.com/auditor/voter/absreq.pdf.

As a result of the same law that requires multiple polling locations for satellite and election day voting, Johnson County residents must request absentee ballots from the Johnson County Auditor. Cedar County residents must request absentee ballots from the Cedar County Auditor.

This new law will also impact voting on Sept. 10. Polling locations will be as follows:

  • Cedar County: Town Hall in West Branch

  • Johnson County Cedar and Graham Townships: Solon City Hall, 101 N. Iowa St., Solon

  • Johnson County Scott Township and Johnson County residents in the City of West Branch: Iowa City Church of Christ, 4643 American Legion Rd. SE, Iowa City

For questions or clarifications, contact Central Office at (319) 643-7213.

How will this impact education in West Branch?

Teaching and learning have evolved dramatically in the half-century since some of our facilities were built. Technology is both shaping and supporting a rapidly transforming educational landscape. Like the higher education campuses and workplaces we are preparing our students for, today’s schools are designed to foster community, creativity, and collaboration. While we cannot predict future changes to curriculum and technology that will inevitably happen, with these renovations and additions we will have facilities that are designed to avoid early obsolescence with flexible, open spaces that are clearly organized, accessible, and easily adaptable. With this project, we will be providing our students with learning environments on par with their peers in other area districts, arming them with opportunities that will prepare them for their next chapter.

How will these additions affect access and parking?

Parking will be addressed as part of this plan. The project budget includes funding for replacing parking that will be displaced by the high school addition. The district is exploring opportunities for the location of the spots. The design team includes civil engineers, who will work with the district to identify improved access and traffic patterns as the design of the additions take shape following a successful bond vote. 

We see the concepts, but what will it actually look like?

We understand that a picture can truly be worth 1,000 words. We also know that you wouldn’t buy a pair of shoes sight unseen. So, we don’t expect the community to support a project without knowing what it will look like. OPN Architects has developed design concepts and floor plans to help illustrate what the high school addition might look like. We want to stress that these are just concepts. It is common practice for school districts that use bond referendums as a funding source for construction projects to not incur the cost of design until after the bond vote. This is the most fiscally responsible approach. Otherwise, it would be like paying someone to design a house before the bank has approved your loan to build it.

After the vote, if the bond passes, the real design work starts going from concept to schematic design, to construction documents (also known as architectural drawings) and ultimately construction. Schools reflect a community’s personality, pride, and philosophies. Before the design of West Branch new spaces, OPN Architects will spend time getting to know the community’s collective vision for how the building will be used and what each space should provide. OPN Architects will help West Branch staff and administration analyze, assess, and synthesize data, methodologies, and facilities to create a blend of physical, digital, and immersive environments that enable your staff to teach and mentor the next generation of innovators, creators, collaborators, and leaders. 

Why do we need an auditorium?

West Branch’s current auditorium is undersized and in need of repair. OPN’s assessment of the space revealed that renovating the space was not the most fiscally responsible decision. The existing auditorium can be reclaimed by the adjacent music room, which is too small and currently shared by instrumental and vocal music. A new auditorium will serve more than the school. Like the rest of the facilities, it will be open to the community. The school district will use the space for more than music and dramatic performances. Auditoriums are more than performance venues. They are large classrooms for fine arts and technology programs. It will also fill an unmet need in the district for a space to host other events for large audiences – speakers, ceremonies, professional development days, etc …  — without monopolizing gym space. The new auditorium will also be safer and more comfortable than our existing auditorium. 

What about the gym?

It was clear from the beginning of this process that the West Branch community and schools would use a second gym with seating for competitions. As the plan evolved into a high school addition, with the middle school moving into the existing high school, it became even more critical to update the large gym by adding bleachers and new lockers rooms, allowing middle and high school students to have separate facilities. 

Why did the district decide not to repair the existing middle school?

The district hired OPN Architects to conduct a thorough assessment all its facilities. This assessment was conducted in January, with the goal of understanding the cost of renovating these buildings. In the case of the middle school, the cost to bring the building up to code, address accessibility, and add a gym and cafeteria was nearly $15 million, two thirds of the total cost of the proposed plan.  Without the additions, it still would have cost more than $9 million to solve immediate security and safety issues, which would not have addressed undersized classrooms or created spaces conducive to today’s learning and teaching styles. The 70-year-old building will also only continue to deteriorate over time, requiring the district to defer funds to maintenance. Considering all these factors, the consensus at both community and facility group meetings was to pursue other solutions.

Is the district concerned about co-locating 5th and 8th grade students with high school students?

Currently West Branch middle school students walk between the middle and elementary school multiple times a day for gym, lunch, and music class because the existing middle school does not have these spaces. West Branch sixth through eighth grade students also already attend classes at the high school each day. Consolidating our high school and middle school on one campus will eliminate the need for middle school students to travel between all three schools daily. It will also allow for efficiencies in maintenance, travel, and other shared services in the district. Many of our peer districts have solved facility issues by co-locating multiple grades on one campus or in one building. The buildings will be connected and share certain common areas but will operate almost entirely independently, including maintaining separate entrances. Use of the common areas – cafeteria, media center, auditorium — will be supervised and orchestrated to avoid middle and high school students passing at the same time. There are also benefits to co-locating students of varying ages, such as opportunities for mentorship. 

What will happen to the existing middle school?

The district intends to move central office functions to a portion of the middle school. The remainder of the school could be used for storage as well as to accommodate preschool classes in the future, depending on growth.

How will the elementary school be improved?

The district plans to use other funds to address safety and security issues at the elementary school. Currently, the elementary school has several areas that aren’t universally accessible. We will address those areas as well as create a secure entry and resolve issues with the exterior of the building.

What will happen to the existing softball fields?

The softball fields will remain in their current location.

How do school facilities affect economic development?

Schools are integrally tied to a community’s economic vitality. According to a recent study by real estate search engine Trulia and Harris Interactive, the majority (57 percent) of parents with children under 18 would pay above listing price to live in the neighborhood with ideal schools. As West Branch looks to the future, with several new neighborhoods under development, our school facilities will play a critical role in our community’s growth.

Why can’t we pay for these improvements without a bond vote?

School district funding is a complicated issue. While generally it is considered wise to save money for a rainy day – or in this case a large expense – school districts are not legally allowed to stockpile large savings accounts. As a protection for tax payers, they are encouraged by law to operate in such a way that they spend all that they bring in each year. This general fund is used to pay salaries and buy supplies. Think of it like a checking account for day-to-day expenses. 

Other funding streams include PERL, which can only be used for recreation and playground projects; PPEL, which can be used to improve ground and buildings; and the 1-cent sales tax (SAVE), which can be used for capital projects. As we look at ways to finance our facilities project, we try to use funding sources – SAVE and PPEL — that have the least amount of impact on property taxes for our community.  It is possible to use these funds for large-scale building projects. However, doing so depletes those funds and doesn’t allow for a cushion should the district need to fix a broken window or replace a piece of equipment, for example. That is why large-scale projects tend to be funded by voter-approved general obligation bond. 

The West Branch Facilities Advisory Committee has sent a clear message that it’s important that the district do what it can to keep property tax rates down while making the facilities improvements they have identified as priorities for our district. While the committee is in the process of finalizing its recommendation for the School Board and a final project cost and tax levy are yet to be determined, they have arrived at a consensus that multiple funds will be used to support the project. This will likely be a general obligation bond, supplemented by SAVE and PPEL dollars to keep the overall property tax impact as low as possible.

How will this project improve safety and security?

Both entrances at the combined high school and middle school will be secure. This means visitors during the day would enter a secure vestibule adjacent to the office. This will dramatically improve security at the high school, which currently opens directly to the commons. 

Have Questions? Contact us!

Non-Discrimination Policy

It is the policy of the West Branch Community School District not to discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, religion, creed, age, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity and socioeconomic status in its educational programs and its employment practices. There is a grievance procedure for processing complaints of discrimination. If you have any questions or a grievance related to this policy please contact the district’s Equity Coordinator, Jessica Burger, Elementary Principal, 148 North Oliphant St., West Branch, IA 52358, 319-643-7211, jburger@west-branch.k12.ia.us

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