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Mississippi Bend AEA 009

The Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency building at 729 21st St. in Bettendorf.

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Special education issues, especially with minority students, are not isolated problems in the Davenport school district, according to an adviser appointed by the state.

An audit indicated a disproportionate numbers of minority students were identified for special education services and have been subjected to disciplinary actions that include suspensions, expulsions, the use of seclusion and/or restraints. To remedy that, the Iowa Department of Education ordered the district to reconvene individualized education plan meetings for hundreds of students to determine if they are owed compensatory education services.

Sandy Schmitz, the implementation adviser overseeing the district as it corrects these issues, told the state board during a meeting Thursday that it may be too early to identify the direct causes of these problems, but she agreed it is not an isolated issue in the district. 

"It's definitely about the entire system," she told the board. "This is not just about special education."

A report on the audit, performed by the Iowa Department of Education program accreditation and finance team in January, was presented to the board in August. Monthly updates have been requested since.

Schmitz said 599 students with IEPs were reviewed over the summer. During the school year, another 1,100 students are "potentially needing to be re-evaluated."

"There is a thought that perhaps some of the students that were identified for special education were not eligible," she said. 

In addition, trainings are planned for educators and three experts will be brought in to talk to staff about the issue of disproportionality.

AEA gets budget approval

Also during the meeting, the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency received approval for a two-year budget that puts it back in the black after years of negative fund balances.

But chief administrator Bill Decker faced tough questioning from the board. Several board members asked how the regional agency based in Bettendorf fell out of compliance with its balanced budget requirements. In the end, the board voted 7-2, with Angela English and Joshua Byrnes dissenting.

The action followed the board’s rejection earlier this year of Mississippi Bend’s 2018-19 budget, which projected a negative ending balance of $3.75 million. The agency was required to provide assurance in writing by May 10 that it would construct a plan to balance the budget within two years and submit that plan by Sept. 1.

The new budget shows a negative fund balance of $2.04 million for the current fiscal year, ending June 30, 2019. For the 2019-20 fiscal year, the document shows an ending fund balance of $332,135. It’s the first positive balance since 2015.

Decker said he discovered the agency was about $100,000 in the hole in late June 2015, about a year after he started in the position. Last year, the agency's fund balance was more than $5 million in debt.

“This has been on our radar almost throughout my entire tenure at Mississippi Bend,” Decker told the board. He noted that, starting in 2012-13, staff began growing at the agency and continued to grow beyond the 70-85 percent of the budget that AEAs normally spend on employees. “I don’t think, in my opinion, that was appropriate.”

He added, “From June of 2015 you will see us getting back to normal.” Since then, there has been a 38 percent cut in administration at Mississippi Bend, a 36 percent cut in non-certified staff and an 11 percent cut in certified staff working directly with students at schools. Decker noted if current certified staff levels are compared to 2011-12, the cut is actually a little more than 3 percent.

“So, how do we keep it from happening again?” asked board member Mike May.

Decker reiterated agency efforts to make staffing reductions largely by not filling positions as they came open.

“One specific measure that we got out of whack with, that’s just what percentage of money is being spent on staff,” he said.

If it was discovered in June 2015, English asked, why wasn’t it cleared up sooner?

Decker noted that the next year’s budget had already been set when the deficit was discovered. “The '15-'16 year started (with us) knowing that we had to take some steps,” he said.

An early retirement incentive was put in place for 2016-17 and the administration “opened up contract negotiations” with employees. He said those negotiations have resulted in savings on personnel without significantly affecting the agency’s work with students.

“As far as services to students, there’s nothing we’re not equipped to do,” said Decker.

“We could’ve done a massive reduction in staff,” he noted. But in that case, the agency “couldn’t tell you” that it had maintained its mission of serving students and school districts. “Our mission has been continued even through that time of reduction in budget.”

When Decker started in the position, “it was very obvious we were deficit spending.” That was stopped with the help of the staff reductions. Administrators also instituted a new monthly treasurer’s report for the agency’s board of directors that allows members to see how expenditures stack up with the current and past budgets.

“We will not be getting ourselves back to that spot,” said Decker.

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