VOTERS APPROVE SCHOOL BOND
By ANDREW MCGINN
Matt Gordon voted No on two previous school bond issues.
On the district’s third time around, he joined the volunteer committee to help get it passed.
Gordon wasn’t the only one who felt the offer on the table this time was too good to pass up. Voters Tuesday approved the Greene County Community School District’s $21.48 million bond issue, a bold proposal that looked nothing like the one defeated twice before at the polls.
The referendum passed 68.68 percent Yes to 31.32 percent No, according to final, unofficial results from the Greene County Auditor’s Office.
In Iowa, school bond issues require an elusive, 60 percent “super-majority” of Yes votes to pass.
“I feel like this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the county,” said Gordon, who also serves on the Jefferson city council. “Having kids in school, this is an opportunity I want to give them.”
By approving the issue, district voters green-lighted construction of a new Greene County High School and a regional career academy to be equipped and staffed by Iowa Central Community College, all on about 80 acres of land just west of AAI along U.S. Highway 30.
The new high school should be ready for the 2020-21 school year.
The existing high school building will be renovated for use by middle school students and district administration, with hopes that a private developer could turn the current middle school into apartments or condos similar to the former Roosevelt Elementary School in Ames.
Above all, the three-story middle school building will be retired as an educational facility after nearly a century, a move championed by parents and advocates of students with physical disabilities.
As Sid Jones, CEO of Home State Bank, recently said, “The entire thing starts with the inadequacy of the middle school.”
But unlike previous tries, the district this time offered up the career academy, where students in Greene and neighboring districts will earn college credit while developing real-world skills. The district also found an alternative avenue of funding for the old plan’s most divisive component: a new gym.
The project will cost $35.48 million in its entirety, but the Grow Greene County Gaming Corp. pledged $4.5 million for the new high school’s competition gym and performing arts center.
The Greene County board of supervisors stepped up as well, offering $5 million for the academy in tax increment financing (TIF) from new wind turbines in the northeast part of the county.
Land for the new school will be acquired with money generated by the Physical Plant and Equipment Levy (PPEL) and a 1-cent sales tax — both of which have already been approved by district voters.
The district has earmarked $4.5 million in PPEL and SAVE funds for the project.
The bond will cost the owner of a home valued at $100,000 an estimated $11.42 per month in new taxes after rollbacks and homestead credits.
Owners of farmland will pay about $2.78 per acre in new taxes, according to district estimates.
“I’m just proud. I’m proud of these people,” said Dr. Keith Van Beek, the Jefferson dentist who co-chaired the Our Kids, Our Future-Greene County committee with Bill and Peg Raney. “We had an army that believed in this project.”
Volunteer committee members knocked on doors, made phone calls and responded with facts to countless Facebook conspiracies, and were backed by yard signs, newspaper ads, T-shirts and even a billboard, all paid for with donations.
“We knew we had to throw literally everything we could at it,” Van Beek said. “I’m so excited for the future. This is going to be a game changer.”
Iowa Central plans to invest upwards of $1.5 million in equipment into the career academy in Greene County, according to Dan Kinney, president of the Fort Dodge-based college.
The college will offer training and college credit to high school juniors and seniors in four strands: computer software, precision agriculture, advanced manufacturing and the culinary arts.
The goal is to create a skilled 21st century workforce from the ground up.
The possibility of a computer software strand at the career academy was enough for Pillar Technology — a company that develops software for a mind-boggling variety of needs — to announce plans to open an office in downtown Jefferson, a first of its kind expansion into rural Iowa for a company with an office in Silicon Valley.
Pillar has plans to renovate the century-old former IOOF building on East State Street next to the Sierra Community Theatre.
As many as 30 jobs could be created locally, with starting annual salaries between $55,000 and $60,000.
But the company’s plans were contingent on approval of the bond.
Chris Deal, the Jefferson native credited with bringing the career academy concept to the school district, was messaging back and forth Tuesday night with Linc Kroeger, vanguard of Pillar’s Future Ready Iowa program.
“He’s beyond excited,” Deal said Tuesday night following the vote at a celebratory gathering of bond supporters at Doc’s Stadium.
A product himself of small-town Iowa, Kroeger returned home to the Hawkeye State three years ago to open a Des Moines office for Pillar and to try establishing a talent pipeline for the company in rural Iowa.
Pillar has developed software for autonomous (that is, driverless) vehicles capable of identifying and avoiding objects and pedestrians, and stopping at stoplights.
Work in precision agriculture enables tractors to tell farmers the precise angle that seeds should be planted for an optimal yield.
A publicly traded utility with enormous databases of equipment information looked to Pillar for help, and within two weeks was given an app that allows their field workers to point a smartphone camera at a piece of equipment — the augmented reality app displays relevant data overlaid on the image.
What made this school improvement plan distinctly different from previous plans was its grassroots origins.
In fact, it didn’t even originate with the school district.
The plan was first made public in October when Jones and Deal appeared before the school board.
Deal, a 2003 graduate of Jefferson-Scranton High School, described himself going into Tuesday’s vote as “cautiously optimistic.”
“Thank God for this committee, this community,” he said. “People stepped up and made it happen.”
Voter turnout was virtually unprecedented for a local school election. In all, more than 51 percent of voters turned out — a far cry from the usual showing of 7 to 10 percent for a school ballot issue, according to the auditor’s office.
Jefferson voters overwhelmingly approved the issue, 75.84 percent Yes to 24.16 percent No.
Absentee voters also rallied big, casting 1,078 ballots — 76.81 percent for, 23.19 percent against.
But in Grand Junction, the issue failed, 45.63 percent Yes to 54.37 percent No.
The issue fared better in Scranton, where a 52.59 percent majority approved of the plan.
Catherine Wilson, a member of the Greene County board of education, brought her son, a high school senior, to the auditor’s office to watch the votes be tallied.
As she waited, she relayed a personal encounter with a No voter.
“He said, ‘You’re all just a bunch of dreamers,’ ” Wilson said. “What’s wrong with being a dreamer?”
What did John Lennon say about dreamers?
To paraphrase him, “I hope some day you’ll join us, and the county will be as one.”