NDC plan would grant all Newton grads scholarships

NDC plan would grant all Newton grads scholarships
 
Date February 03, 2006
Section(s) Local News
Brief  
 
By ANDY KARR

NDN Staff Writer

Jaws dropped, eyes opened wide and Newton City Council was rendered speechless last night — at least for the first few seconds — as the enormity of Newton Development Corporation’s proposal sunk in.

NDC presented council with a radical economic development plan to offer all graduates of Newton Senior High School full scholarships to the Iowa public university or community college of their choice.

“It’s a phenomenal plan,” council member Jean Morgan finally said after council had heard from NDC members and Newton School Superintendent Steve McDermott on the proposal.

The idea is NDC’s solution to jump-start growth in Newton.

A continuing problem for Newton over the years has been how to grow a community stuck around a population of 15,000 people for decades. Newton had a mere eight single-family housing starts in 2005, same as in 2004. With the Maytag situation looming as a constant dark cloud over a community faced with an already stagnant tax base, economic development has become increasingly important.

NDC officials believe this program could change Newton’s outlook. They see this program as a catalyst to draw people to Newton, retain those already here and make this community stand out in not only the state of Iowa, but in the nation as a whole.

“It’s a true investment in the future of the community, and there’s no better way to do that than investing in our children,” NDC Executive Director Kim Didier said.

The program, dubbed “The Newton Promise” is modeled after a similar program in Kalamazoo, Mich.

That program, announced last November, will grant all graduating seniors in Kalamazoo full scholarships to Michigan public colleges. All students who remain enrolled in Kalamazoo schools from kindergarten through high school would receive the scholarships. Students transferring into the district after kindergarten can still receive a portion of scholarship money based on how long they’ve been in the school system.

Newton’s version would be similar, officials say, offering scholarships to the public Iowa college of a student’s choice, or a portion of tuition at a private Iowa college.

Buzz about the program already was spreading this morning. Teachers and students at Newton Senior High School shared thoughts via e-mail with the Daily News.

“What an exciting development,” wrote Mark Burnett, Language Arts Department Head. “This is proof that in light of the troubles at Maytag, our school district recognizes the importance of ‘picking ourselves up by the bootstraps.’ We build our own futures.”

English teacher Sarah Patterson agreed.

“This seems almost too good to be true,” she wrote. “I was reading the e-mail containing the information, and I wanted to pinch myself to make sure I was awake. If this plan were to come to fruition, it would be the most exciting thing that has happened to our town since I moved here 15 years ago.”

High school student Jeff Funk wrote, “Wow, I feel this will be a great opportunity to be able to get a head start out in the real world for our generation, because unfortunately, some of us are not able to just go out and pay for four years of college.”

There was no shortage of kind words for the idea, but the real test of the project’s viability will be whether it can secure funding.

In the short term, NDC proposes that the city take out a $5 million bond to get the program up and running. The city would pay for the bond using 48 percent of local option sales tax money, if that measure passes March 28.

In addition, NDC wants a portion of money from the school infrastructure sales tax that’s already in place in Jasper County. Jasper Community Foundation would be enlisted for private fundraising for the program, and NDC would seek state grant money as well.

“Our best case scenario would be to try to get running as fast as possible,” Didier said.

This all depends on how receptive the community is to the idea. If the local option sales tax vote succeeds on March 28 and the community embraces this proposal, “The Newton Promise” could be offering full-ride scholarships for Newton graduates as early as spring of 2007.

Didier said this move would not only set Newton apart from the rest of the state, but it could give the community an edge over Des Moines suburbs as the community of choice for people settling near the Des Moines metro area.

“We as a community have the public infrastructure and the human infrastructure to compete with the Ankeny and such, but we need something that distinguishes us more,” Didier said. “The hope is that people would remain in Newton or choose to live in Newton, even if they worked outside the community.

“Then we start to have the positive response of having hundreds of housing starts and getting the word out that Newton is a thriving community.”

Didier believes this plan would do exactly that.

“It’s bold,” she said. “This is an investment in our future.”

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