By Eric Hawkinson and
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– The spot for a new high school has been chosen, as the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) inches toward finalizing its comprehensive facilities master plan.
The school board voted 6-0 at an Aug. 13 district meeting to approve a land acquisition for the location of a proposed third high school; 76 acres of near at the junction of Dubuque Street and North Liberty Road.
The Scanlon family farm currently owns the plot of land and donated 11 of the 76 acres, allowing the district to save $385,000 dollars. The total acquisition is expected to cost $2.3 million dollars.
North Liberty residents have long waited for a third high school, but this land purchase is just one of many steps still ahead. The high school is part of a much larger $260 million facilities plan that the district has designed to take place over the next 10 years.
The plan is a response to massive growth in the district and in addition to a new high school includes three new elementary schools: one in Iowa City on American Legion Road, another on Iowa City’s southeast side, and a third on district property off North Liberty Road.
Many parents have voiced disdain over the district’s decision to close some existing elementary schools in the face of increasing enrollment. The district’s North Liberty attendance areas, however, could see the opposite effect. With the addition of a third high school, North Central Junior High in North Liberty is expected to undergo additions to promote growth.
The planned high school in North Liberty is estimated to cost $65.3 million and would serve the rapid population growth in Coralville in North Liberty. In recent years, Iowa City West has experienced overcrowding with the influx of students from Iowa City and North Liberty, so the new high school is projected to reach a capacity of 1,500 students.
Still, plans could change before construction workers start to break ground on site. The open date of Fall 2018 has been discussed at previous board meetings, but no such talk was entertained at the most recent meeting. Superintendent Stephen Murley plans to present a timeline for a course of action sometime this fall.
Some administrators previously raised concerns about placing a school on increasingly busy roads, and that traffic conditions may worsen as development continues in the area.
In fact, the traffic impact of building a school at the planned site was a major point of discussion between North Liberty city officials and members of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors at a joint meeting they held Aug. 27.
The new school is proposed in an unincorporated area on a gravel road that circles around the north and east sides of North Liberty’s city limits and reconnects to Dubuque Street. Supervisor Terrence Neuzil said he had concerns because there had been no real conversation between the district and the county about who would pay for needed infrastructure.
“Keep in mind we are going to have a number of schools built, and everyone knows if you build schools, you have a significant amount of growth,” said Neuzil, so sewers and roads will need to be added and improved accordingly. “I don’t want to see what happened on 12th Avenue extension, where the land is purchased, and then the school comes to North Liberty and Coraville and says, ‘oh by the way, we need millions of dollars to upgrade these roads, and oh by the way, residents will have to pay for the sidewalks and everything else that comes with that.”
North Liberty City Administrator Ryan Heiar said the city has had several conversations with school district officials and the Scanlon family.
“We are still talking,” said Heiar. “We are setting up regular meetings to walk through some of these issues. If there is an annexation out there, there would be an understanding that roads in an annexed area, or even near it, will need to be maintained, and most likely the city would have to step up. And we have been up front about infrastructure costs.”
Supervisor Janelle Rettig was more pointed in her concern over road upgrades.
“That is a rock road. There is not a penny in the county budget to do anything other than have that be a rock road. Not a penny,” said Rettig. “We can barely deliver rock to our (existing) rock roads, let alone make a significant investment like that.”
Supervisor Rod Sullivan requested that as conversations between the City of North Liberty and the ICCSD move forward, a county representative be invited to the table as well.
North Liberty city councilor Coleen Chipman said the details have yet to be discussed.
“This is developer driven, so they should be involved in cost sharing. We will ask the developer at some point to pay for their fair share of building roads and infrastructure, so I don’t think that is going to be off the table,” said Chipman, who then provided another perspective regarding school districts not consulting with cities and counties before making a land purchase.
“The cities don’t consult with schools when they want development,” said Chipman. “(Districts) are building schools because the cities are allowing all the development. We are in partnership and we need to work with each other so we can get the best dollars for the taxpayers and make it so it’s not such a financial burden on taxpayers, cities and the county. There will have to be sit-down meetings with all entities to figure out who is going to pay for what.”
North Liberty City Planner Dean Wheatley reiterated the infancy of the discussions between the district and other key players.
“Our early discussion with the developer and school district included those topics,” said Wheatley, “but I would echo that it’s really early. We don’t have an annexation application, or plan, or even an indication from the Scanlon family what they want to annex.”