Return to Nicholas Johnson's Main Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Iowa Rain Forest ("Earthpark") Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Blog, FromDC2Iowa

Defining needs and wants


The Gazette

January 28, 2007

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of The Gazette.]

  People throughout Linn and Johnson counties are talking about the items on the school districts’ spending lists for the revenue from a proposed school infrastructure local-option (SILO) tax.

  They want to know before they vote Feb. 13 whether these items are ‘‘needs’’ or if they are ‘‘wants.’’

  Most people would agree that a ‘‘need’’ is an essential item or service a person or an institution must have to survive or to fulfill a fundamental mission. Most people would agree that a ‘‘want’’ is something that, no matter how wonderful and desirable it might be, is not indispensable to fulfilling that mission.

  The districts say they need the proposed 10-year 1 percent sales tax to support their mission — education.

  Some critics say the lists are padded with lots of ‘‘wants,’’ projects that aren’t needed for the core mission, and at best could be accomplished by shifting priorities for existing budgets.

  The problem with trying to sort out whether items on the districts’ lists are needs or wants is that many voters tend to make that distinction based upon their own situations and experiences, and not from the real circumstances in public education today. Aging buildings need to be repaired. Students need greater access to technology. More classrooms are needed.

  But if you look at the lists based on a perspective influenced by the era of one-room schoolhouses, then it’s easy to respond to districts’ request for more money: Let the kids shiver or sweat in buildings needing significant updates. So what if classrooms are crowded? Just give the teachers a better grade of chalk.

  These assertions would have merits if the world hadn’t changed since the one-room schoolhouse — but it has. Needs can no longer be measured by the circumstances of another era.

  More resources and safer, sounder learning environments are necessary to support the mission of today’s schools. Still, it’s fair to question how these needs should be met.

  For example, the Iowa City Community School District’s spending list includes accessibility projects at four schools as a ‘‘need,’’ with an estimated $2 million price tag. How are persons with mobility challenges gaining access to the schools today? Are other funding sources available to address such needs?

  The Iowa City district’s list also includes construction of two elementary schools and a high school, basing the $52 million ‘‘need’’ on enrollment projections over the next decade. The district must plan for the future, but are new buildings the only way to handle the projected growth?

  In the Cedar Rapids Community School District, infrastructure projects costing $65 million have been identified, including upgrades to plumbing, wiring and other improvement projects for school buildings. The projects have been documented, but does Cedar Rapids still need all of these buildings to support its mission?

  Johnson and Linn school districts say they are thinking about taxpayers’ needs and wants. That’s why they have pledged to use some of the money for property tax relief.

  Taxpayers say they need the relief, and they say they want Iowa children to get the best education the state can provide. So, is tax relief really a ‘‘need’’ or is it a ‘‘want’’?

  Voters ultimately will decide if the districts get the money they need — or want. For the moment, the public needs assurances that school administrators and school boards, by defining today’s needs, have not dodged making critical decisions about tomorrow’s needs.