House panel moves to block Senate bid to force Des Moines stadium referendum

The Des Moines school district and Drake University have proposed a joint football and soccer stadium on Drake's campus. (Image courtesy of Des Moines schools and RDG Planning & Design)

Des Moines would not have to hold a public referendum on an already approved football and soccer stadium under a bill amendment passed by an Iowa House panel on Tuesday. 

Members of the House Ways and Means Committee argued that the Senate went too far in passing Senate File 2410, which would have forced the referendum months after the Des Moines School Board and Drake University announced plans for the $19.5 million facility on Drake’s campus. 

The amendment would strip language that would have made a referendum requirement retroactive, affecting the Des Moines project and six others around the state. The committee also approved language that would prevent districts from requiring the number of referendum petition signatures to be based on the combined turnout of city and school elections — as Des Moines did — instead of basing the number on just the school election turnout.

Rep. Monica Kurth, D-Davenport, said she objected to overruling decisions by local school boards. She added that the type of shared stadium planned by Drake and Des Moines schools could save both money. 

Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines, supported the amended bill, which now moves to the full House for consideration. 

Rep. Bruce Hunter is a Democrat from Des Moines. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Legislature)

“Whether or not you agree with the stadium project in Des Moines, the school board and everyone else did everything right,” Hunter said. “We can’t and shouldn’t change the rules in the middle of the game.”

Last week, Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, objected to the district’s decision this month to carry on with the project even as thousands of residents demanded a referendum. Bisignano, who helped petitioners seeking a referendum, said they had gathered enough signatures to force a vote; the school board said they hadn’t. 

Petitioners had collected 7,100 signatures, which would have cleared the requirement of 30% of the vote in the school election. The district said it had to be 30% of the combined city and school votes on the same day for the first time in the last election. 

Bisignano called that decision arrogant. “That’s sleight of hand, that’s wrong and that’s dishonest action by the Des Moines School Board,” he said.

State Sen. Tony Bisignano is a Democrat from Des Moines. (Photo by Iowa Legislature)

In separate statements, Drake University President Marty Martin and Des Moines School Board said the move would harm Des Moines’ relatively diverse and poor student body. Martin wrote that the move “raises serious concerns regarding our state officials’ commitment to equity and inclusion for all Iowa citizens.”  Editor’s note:  This paragraph has been updated to clarify the story’s summary of statements from Martin and the school board. Martin says he did not characterize the Senate’s action as “racist.”

Des Moines City Councilwoman Connie Boesen, a former Des Moines school board member, said, “They are telling our people that the suburbs can have nice facilities but we can’t.”

The school board noted it spent $600 million of the special sales tax for school infrastructure on academic facilities before turning to the joint stadium to avoid $60 million in estimated upgrades at three school stadiums.

The bill advances to the full House as a committee bill.