Iowa Senate Democrats will seek 4 percent school aid hike for fiscal 2015

Republicans say they want to finalize reforms before considering school aid formulas

UPDATE: Majority Democrats in the Iowa Senate plan to seek a 4 percent increase in state aid for K-12 schools for the fiscal 2015 budget year.

Senators already approved a 4 percent “allowable growth” increase for Iowa’s 348 school districts for the school year that begins on July 1, but the Iowa House has not taken up that measure. Republicans, who hold a 53-47 edge in the House, say they want to follow Gov. Terry Branstad’s lead in finalizing education reforms before they turn to the decisions of how much supplemental state aid to provide for K-12 public schools for the next two school years.

Iowa forward-funding law requires the governor and Legislature to set the rate of “allowable growth” for schools’ base budgeting within 30 days after the governor submits his budget blueprint to lawmakers. The 84th General Assembly failed to follow that law last year, so the fiscal 2014 decision is in arrears. Branstad presented his budget proposal to the 85th General Assembly on Jan. 15, so the split-control Legislature is approaching a new deadline for meeting the law’s requirements again this session.

Members of the Senate Education Committee voted 9-4 Thursday to send bills with 4 percent growth in state aid for base K-12 funding and “categorical” programs that supplement teacher pay, reduce class sizes and provide professional development.

Senate GOP Leader Bill Dix of Shell Rock said Democrats are “getting the horse before the cart” by dealing with supplemental state aid for schools before the split-control Legislature acts on the reform agenda.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said he expects the fiscal 2015 school funding bills to come before the full Senate next Wednesday – which would be in compliance with the state’s forward-funding law. He said the state can afford 4 percent growth for the next two school years given the state’s surplus position, and move ahead with both the funding and education forward issues on parallel legislative tracks so schools can make plans before they have to certify their budgets this spring.

“It usually isn’t a quick process to come to a final budget deal for overall spending for education and the entire budget,” he said, noting the Senate plan could cost up to $114 million for “allowable growth” spending, $15 million for the categorical funding and probably another $38 million in extra state aid to offset any local property tax triggers based on staff estimates. However, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said the 4 percent growth price tag could be “north of $135 million.”

The House Education Committee is slated to consider Branstad’s education reform package next week, while Quirmbach said a Senate subcommittee is making good progress in its deliberations over the reform package.

“It’s a very important bill and it’s not something that we want to just slap together and dump on our school districts and hope that they can make it work,” Quirmbach noted. “Every child who has ever been raised has always had to learn the lessons about – ‘you’ve got to eat your vegetables before you get dessert, you’ve got to do your homework before you can go out and play or watch TV.’ There are certain basic things that we have to take care of before we move on to the fun and new stuff. Let’s take care of basics and then let’s move beyond to the new thing.”

Last month, the Senate – on a party-line vote – decided that state support for schools would increase by 4 percent, or $135 million, and money would be allocated from a budget surplus fund to prevent local property tax increases for schools.

Iowa schools are funded through a combination of state support and local property tax dollars, with the state providing 87.5 percent of the money. School funding is distributed on a per-student basis to local districts. Legislation passed last month in the Senate would boost per-pupil funding by $240, to $6,241 for the 2013-14 school year.

When the Legislature and governor increase funding for schools, it triggers a matching increase for local districts that is typically filled by increasing local property taxes. However, senators voted unanimously to provide $38.5 million in extra state funding so local districts don't have to raise taxes.

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