Iowa district rejects ministry's offer to buy vacant building and launch Christian school
"We need to protect the school that we’re a part of," said one school board member
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A public school board in Iowa rejected a bid from a Christian ministry that offered to buy a vacant building in order to create a private religious school.
The Waverly-Shell Rock Community Schools has two elementary schools that are no longer in use and they’ve been trying to figure out what to do with the properties. That means taking bids from interested parties and deciding if any of them are worthwhile. The district said it was not obligated to accept any proposal, nor did they have to “sell to the highest bidder.”
In addition to a $5,000 proposal for an arts center, and another $5,000 bid to build apartments, a Christian ministry called Inspired Life offered $70,000 to purchase one of the schools:
The intended use of the property will be for the founding of an accredited, private K-8 school called Waverly Christian School, which is planned to be “supported through a partnership with Waterloo Christian School.”
The school is expected to have 100 students the first year, and a capacity for 200 students. The proposal also envisions an accredited preschool center of approximately 30 kids.
The ministry wanted one school in particular but offered the same price for the other one if the first bid didn’t pan out.
Inspired Life is disappointed that our offer to purchase property for the purpose of launching Waverly Christian School was voted down in a 5-0 decision by the Waverly-Shell Rock Community School Board. This decision was made despite Inspired Life submitting the highest financial offer on either of the available properties. We believe that communities benefit from having access to educational options that align with family values. Preventing the sale of a vacant school building and limiting access to educational options is not in the best interest of Waverly families. Our research demonstrates considerable demand for Waverly Christian School, and we will continue our pursuit of serving students and families by expanding educational opportunities in Waverly and across the State of Iowa.
They didn’t quite cry persecution, but the implication was obvious: We offered the most money so we deserved to get the building. But they didn’t point out what reasons, if any, the board members gave for rejecting their offer. (The school board doesn’t post recordings of its meetings online.)
Now, however, thanks to an article in the Courier by reporter Maria Kuiper, we have that answer.
Almost immediately after reading the motion to consider the bids for the private school, board member [Jes] Kettleson motioned to reject it. Newly elected board member Shawn Ellerbroek seconded.
“Every school dollar now, with the new (education savings accounts), goes away from the public school, and we are a public school,” Kettleson said. “But we need to protect the school that we’re a part of.”
“They want the public schools to be supported and strong,” [board member Dennis Epley] said. “Any money that we start offering to other programs limits the dollars we have (so) that we can have a strong school.”
Kettleson is referring to a new Iowa law, enacted earlier this year, which gives taxpayer dollars to families enrolling their kids in private schools. Nearly 19,000 kids were signed up to receive these vouchers this school year, at a cost of up to “$7,635 per student.” Critics of these ESAs have said the private/religious schools accepting these dollars may be unregulated, lack accountability, don’t necessarily accommodate students with special needs, and siphon away money that could be used to maintain and improve public schools.
So it makes a lot of sense for a public school board, whose primary obligation is to serve families receiving a public education, to reject a bid from a Christian school that would inevitably make life worse for public school students.
There’s nothing anti-Christian about that sentiment. It’s more like the public school board doesn’t want to contribute to its own demise. And they shouldn’t have to. There’s nothing stopping the Christian ministry from launching their school somewhere else. More importantly, the short term cash from any sale wouldn’t be worth the long-term damage to public education.
Kettleson and Epley did not respond to requests for comment, but I would love to see the school board issue a more formal statement about why they don’t believe selling the property to people eager to create a private school is in the best interest of the community.
It’s the right move. I worry, though, that conservatives will treat this as a story of Christian persecution when it’s really a story about how to best support public education.