Iowa schools face reform hurdles

2012-12-10T00:32:00Z Iowa schools face reform hurdlesRod Boshart The Quad-City Times
December 10, 2012 12:32 am  • 

DES MOINES – Gov. Terry Branstad’s call to replace the current method of setting per-pupil funding increases for school districts has upped the uncertainty for administrators and school boards already trying to keep tabs on expected sweeping reform proposals.

Under Iowa’s K-12 education forward-funding law, the Legislature already was supposed to have adopted an “allowable growth” rate to guide fiscal 2014 budget decisions in Iowa’s 348 school districts. However, that requirement was ignored last session as lawmakers transition to biennial budgeting.

Since then, Branstad has indicated he favors scrapping the allowable growth approach in favor of a new method that targets resources to public schools in ways that improve student achievement and not just provide more money.

Branstad and his aides say the governor’s education reform and funding recommendations will be spelled out when he submits his two-year budget proposal to lawmakers in January. But Democrats who control the Iowa Senate have expressed resistance to ending K-12 financing approach that has been in place since 1973. School leaders say the uncertainty already has caused them to move back collective bargaining talks and put other decisions for the 2013-14 school year on hold.

Dan Smith, executive director of the School Administrators of Iowa, said lawmakers in recent years have approved little or no allowable growth.

“All of the other expectations around collective bargaining and setting tax rates and all of those issues go forward,” he said.

Not knowing what resources are available, he said, “creates a great deal of stress, no doubt about it.”

If the governor and split-control Legislature are unable to reach an agreement on allowable growth funding, the rate by law defaults to zero percent for regular school aid and categorical funding. Preliminary estimates issued by the Legislative Services Agency indicate that a zero allowable growth for fiscal 2014 would keep per-pupil funding at $6,001 but still would require $6.5 million in state aid and $58.9 million in property tax revenue next fiscal year under the school foundation aid formula.

Setting allowable growth at 2 percent would cost $72.8 million in state aid and $48.4 million in property taxes to raise per-pupil funding to $6,121, while a 4-percent boost would require a $140 million increase in state aid and $49 million in local property taxes to hike per-pupil funding by $240 to $6,241, according to the LSA analysis.

Senate president Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said it’s too early to say how education-related issues will unfold in the coming session, but his caucus said local districts should determine policies and make decisions to best ensure a good education for their students

“Doing away with the allowable growth mechanism means we’re really kind of taking over how local schools are run, so I’d say we’ll certainly have some resistance to that, but the governor can choose to sign or veto or whatever he wants to do,” he said.

Sen. Brian Schoenjahn, D-Arlington, said he has taken a “wait-and-see” approach until he receives details of what the governor envisions, but he acknowledged that state policy-makers are increasing the angst for school officials. They must certify fiscal year 2014 budgets by April 15.

Further, he said, lawmakers are floating a lot of reform ideas that will require new money or reallocations to accomplish.

He feels for administrators and school board members.

“I would find that extremely difficult to plan, to budget, to know my staffing needs or my curricular needs.”

Rep. Ron Jorgensen, R-Sioux City, chairman of House Education Committee, said he hoped the Legislature and governor could resolve the K-12 funding level for fiscal 2014 early in the session so school districts have a better handle on their financial situations. He also said he favors revisiting the school aid formula but expected that would require the formulation of a study panel or task force to take an in-depth look at complicated issues, including transportation for rural schools, districts with declining or increasing enrollments, budget guarantees and property tax equity.

“Whether we can accomplish this in this year’s session, I’m not sure,” he said.

He suggested doing a study one year and proposing legislation the next year.

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