School funding formula

A woman wears a pin with a caricature of Davenport schools Superintendent Art Tate during a meeting of community leaders supporting parity in education funding.

DES MOINES — The Iowa state Senate on Thursday gave Davenport school leaders a victory they have been working toward for years.

On a 47-0 vote, senators approved changes to the state's funding formula that eventually will fix inequities in per-pupil spending that have forced Davenport schools to spend up to $175 less than some other districts are allowed.

"That's great," Davenport Superintendent Art Tate said Thursday afternoon after learning about the vote.

Tate has put his administrator's license on the line this year by spending more per pupil than state law allows to make up for the inequity. He is facing ethics action brought by the state.

The bill, Senate File 455, now goes to the Iowa House for action. If approved there, it would move to Gov. Terry Branstad's desk for his signature.

Richard Clewell, Davenport School Board member and chair of the board’s Legislative Advocacy Committee, said, “We are pleased that Senate File 455 has passed. Now, we’ll watch what happens in the Iowa House and gear up our advocacy efforts.”

The bill fixes the inequity by phasing in increases over 10 years for school districts. The cost is estimated at $15 million to $20 million in the first year and increases annually until fully implemented in 2027. It also addresses issues with transportation costs for districts that span wide areas. Those districts must take money from their general fund to pay for the increased costs of busing students.

Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, was a co-sponsor of the bill and was happy at the result.

“It’s an exciting day," he said. "It’s a long-term fix, and we’ll move it to the House. We’ll continue to work on the short-term fix as well.”

The short-term solution is a effort Smith is pursuing that would allow districts to spend some of their reserve funds while the long-term fix is being implemented.

“This bill is pro-education, this bill is fairness, this bill helps Iowa and its children,” Smith told his colleagues. “It is reasonable, sustainable and prudent. Vote yes for equality.”

Although the bill passed the Senate unanimously, it still had its critics. Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, argued unsuccessfully that the cost could create competition for state budget dollars and mean less general school funding for all districts.

Others, however, praised the bill.

“This is huge,” said Sen. Tom Shipley, R-Nodaway, who noted the bill addressed problems that have vexed school districts for decades. “What an opportunity. We’re going to do the right thing.”

Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, called the change a bipartisan effort that has spanned multiple sessions in trying to close a gap in transportation costs that range up to $1,133 per student among Iowa’s 333 school districts.

“This is going to be a game-changer. This is big, this is important,” said Bowman, who noted some would like to see a faster pace to inequities that will be dealt with slowly over a period of years. “Iowans across the state want this regardless of urban or rural.”

In other issues:

The senate voted Thursday to take steps to address problems associated with drunken, drugged and distracted driving.

Senators voted 48-0 to establish programs that would require drivers arrested or convicted of driving impaired to participate in twice-daily sobriety monitoring, as well as require some drivers to install ignition interlocks in their vehicles. The sobriety monitoring program is modeled after initiatives in South Dakota and other states.

“I believe this is a necessary piece of legislation to create additional tools with the intent of improving safety on our roads,” said Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, floor manager for Senate File 444.

The legislation puts in place an evidence-based, innovative criminal justice concept with a non-traditional approach to treat crimes involving alcohol or drug abuse with the goal of preventing repeat occurrences, he said. An offender could be placed in the opt-in program as a condition of bond, pretrial release, sentence probation, parole or a temporary restricted license and be allowed to function in a job free from incarceration if he or she abstains from the use of alcohol and/or drugs for the term of the sanction, he added.

A separate provision of the bill, which now goes to the Iowa House for consideration, would provide that cellphone use while driving would be considered evidence of reckless driving “with willful or wanton disregard” for public safety. A driver who struck and killed someone would commit a Class C felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of no more than $10,000.

“This legislation does do something to promote safety on our public highways. It definitely feels like it’s a step in the right direction as we find the best way to keep our citizens safe and reduce the number of injuries on our public highways,” said Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines.

The recommendations for the legislation came out of a task force Gov. Terry Branstad formed to study ways to keep drunk, drugged and distracted drivers off Iowa highways following a year when traffic deaths spiked to 403 — the most since 2008.

Also Thursday, senators voted 26-21 to approve legislation prohibiting union project labor agreements from being mandated on taxpayer-funded construction projects that are financed by state or local governments. All Republicans present voted yes while 20 Democrats and one independent senator opposed Sen. File 438.

"Taxpayers deserve the best construction that they can get at the very best price that they can get," said Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, the bill’s floor manager. "This bill will make that happen by encouraging more contractors to bid on a project."

Guth said the bill will increase competition and reduce costs if government entities have options other than project labor agreements that favor union workers. He and others contend non-union contractors shy away from government-financed projects because the bidding process requires the revelation of proprietary information.

Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, said the bill is another example of lawmakers intruding into a local control issue for cities, counties and school districts in trying unsuccessfully to apply the bill’s provisions solely to state projects.

(Deirdre Cox Baker contributed to this story.)