Statement by Des Moines School Board on Iowa Senate Action

The following is a statement by the Des Moines School Board in response to legislation approved by the Iowa Senate to retroactively change the law in regard to approving school district athletic facilities: 

Since Iowa enacted a sales tax for public school infrastructure, the focus at Des Moines Public Schools has been to renovate and improve our schools and classrooms. Now, a measure passed by the Iowa Senate would, in a way that can only be described as prejudiced, tie the hands of Iowa’s largest and most diverse school district by retroactively taking away the rights that had been provided to every other school district in the state.

While many school districts almost immediately spent sales tax funds on athletic facilities and auditoriums – as was their right to do – in Des Moines we invested more than $600 million into our academic facilities, including tens of millions of dollars to the arts. After all, education is job one for us, which was the focus of our sales tax funds for the past 20 years.

At the same time, athletics is a critical part of education, something that engages countless students with their schools and serves as the “front porch” for our high schools.

So, when the time came to improve our athletic facilities, there were some options to consider. One would be to simply spend limited funds on our existing facilities. For our football stadiums alone that could cost as much as $60 million. Another option would be to work with a partner to develop a first-rate facility that could be shared by our schools and others in the community.

The partnership between Des Moines Public Schools and Drake University goes back more than a century. The opportunity to work with them to develop a Community Stadium not only built on our successful partnership but also would save the school district tens of millions of dollars, not only in construction costs but also on-going, general fund operation expenses.

The partnership was unveiled more than six months ago. Since then the topic has been discussed and debated at School Board meetings and a series of community forums. There is no doubt that there are strong opinions on both sides, and pretending there is only one side in this discussion is to ignore reality.

Acting according to the letter and intent of the law, the School Board held a public hearing and then voted unanimously to approve a resolution to proceed with the new stadium. That triggered another provision under Iowa law: the right to petition to have the voters decide.

The law is clear about the requirements for such a petition. The petition must be signed by eligible electors equal to “thirty percent of the number of voters at the last preceding election of school officials.” The math is simple. According to the Polk County Auditor, there were 25,004 voters in last November’s election, when both School Board members and PPEL were on the ballot; 30% of that number is 7,501.

A group of people who felt strongly about this issue worked hard to get the signatures. They also knew what was required. One of their organizers even contacted the school district to confirm the requirements, and thanked the Superintendent for his prompt response, never questioning the information provided.

Unfortunately for them, their petitions were short of the legal requirement. At the same time, some of the concerns raised by those organizing the petitions are already being addressed; specifically. a process to identify the needs at all of our athletic facilities and come up with a comprehensive plan to address them.

Now, in the course of five hours one afternoon with no forewarning, the Iowa Senate has passed a bill that specifically targets Des Moines Public Schools, stealing from us the legal rights that applied to every other school district in the state. The legislation would, retroactively, not only codify the shortcomings of the petitioners but would even require an undemocratic super-majority for any school district to spend a dime to improve athletic facilities. This action is inexplicable. In fact, not one member of the Iowa Senate representing Des Moines spoke with the School Board or Superintendent about this.

Here’s the sad truth: the vote taken by the Iowa Senate is nothing more and nothing less than prejudice and bias directed at a school district with a majority of students of color. And the message from those state senators who supported this bill to students of color is loud and clear: your peers in the suburbs and small towns can have nice things, but when it comes to you we are going to change the rules, we are going to move the goal line, we are going to cheat you out of the same opportunities afforded to other students in Iowa.

At a time when systemic racism has never been more at the forefront of public debate, the Iowa Senate has reinforced the fact that the rules for our society are still too often divided along a color line.