Wapello Community (Iowa) School District (WCSD) serves a rural community in Louisa County about 170 miles southeast of Des Moines. Wapello Jr./Sr. High School was built in 1923, and Wapello Elementary School was constructed in 1956—both in need of repair. With a population of just over 2,000 and no hospital or major retail stores, it would have been all but impossible to renovate the schools without increasing homeowner’s property taxes, which WCSD Business Manager Eric Small felt would have been unfair because funds should come from the entire community.
The County of Louisa asked and received from voters their approval of the School Infrastructure Local Option (SILO) sales tax in 2004, which had a more stable economic climate. WCSD, one district that benefited from the tax, started collecting funds in 2005. Wapello residents now pay 6 percent sales tax (state sales tax of 5 percent plus 1 percent local option sales tax).
By 2014, all 99 counties in Iowa will pay into the state pool creating an equal amount of funding for each district on a per-pupil basis. “It took a lot of lobbying and community action to pass the statewide sales tax, which makes the funding system much more equitable,” says WCSD Superintendent Mike Peterson.
Mary Gannon, lobbyist for the Iowa Association of School Boards, says it wasn’t easy to pass the statewide sales tax, which passed in 2008 after roughly seven years of lobbying and grassroots support from every district. “Collaboration is key. The Farm Bureau was a big partner because the tax kept property taxes from going up, and construction groups lobbied for it because it was infrastructure,” says Gannon.
Gannon kept presenting data and enforcing the idea that school funding should not depend on a child’s zipcode. According to Small, Wapello currently gets about $800 per student from the state, which is $640,000 per year for 800 students. In 2014, through the statewide pool, Wapello will get $875 per student, an additional $60,000 per year.
In addition, in 2010, Wapello passed the Revenue Purpose Statement to allow the district to borrow against funds for the life of the tax, which ends Dec. 31, 2029. Wapello can borrow about $13 million through 2029 for infrastructure projects. “If it wasn’t for someone’s creative thinking, a district of our size would’ve never been able to pull this off. We are able to do major renovations without burdening property taxpayers,” says Small.
Turning Pennies Into Renovation
The first project WCSD completed with the penny tax funds was renovating the high school auditorium into a state-of-the-art facility that the community can use. It was completed in October of 2008 for $1.1 million.
Last summer, the district took on updating the high school science labs to 21st century standards and replaced ceilings, lights and lockers. The 1923 Vocational Trades Building, which is part of the high school, received a facelift, and now has new windows. This phase of renovation also cost about $1.1 million. The bond will be paid off in 2014.
Most recently, Wapello completed a group of smaller projects, including new windows for the elementary building ($300,000), new lighting for the football complex ($90,000), aluminum seating for the football stadium ($77,000) and a new central administration office ($110,000). Small says WCSD will pay off the first set of bonds before taking on another project.
WCSD has completed $4 million in renovations, technology upgrades and facility repair thanks to the penny sales tax funds.
Courtney Williams is assistant editor.