School funding issues remain unresolved in Iowa Legislature

Experts: 'A tough, uphill battle' ahead

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DES MOINES — Two school funding issues — imbalances in transportation costs and in per-pupil spending allowances — were deemed by state lawmakers worthy of extra attention before this year’s legislative session.

Yet upon their return to the Capitol this session, legislators have made precious little headway on either issue.

Rural public school districts across the state say their high transportation costs mean more money spent on buses and less on classroom programs and supplies. And districts statewide — Davenport has been most vocal on the issue — are limited by a school funding formula mechanism that forces them to spend less per pupil than other districts.

School officials and education advocates have pressed lawmakers to devise solutions, and those lawmakers created an interim study committee to investigate.

That committee met in December to hear from stakeholders, including school officials and state agencies. Committee members pledged to take the information gleaned back to their colleagues in the Capitol and discussed meeting again, but they did not.

The result this session has been a small flurry of bills, but none that mustered enough support to survive a legislative deadline. That made them technically ineligible for the remainder of the year, although there are maneuvers by which a bill can be resurrected.

Only one proposal to address the school funding issues remains eligible for consideration this year: to allow school districts to use money from their infrastructure sales tax to offset transportation costs or supplement per-pupil spending.

That proposal has been inserted into two separate pieces of legislation, one of which is Gov. Terry Branstad’s bill in which he proposes sharing future school infrastructure sales tax revenue with water-quality projects.

The proposal to use school infrastructure funds to alleviate the transportation and per-pupil spending issues will face critics who say it steals money from one need to fund another.

“I think those face a tough, uphill battle,” said Brad Hudson, a government relations specialist with the Iowa State Education Association.

In other words, legislative consensus on a solution to these issues has proved elusive thus far.

‘Irresponsible’

Rep. Phyllis Thede, D-Bettendorf, said she is frustrated at the inaction. She supported a proposal that would have addressed the per-pupil funding issue by providing a three-year window for districts to use money in their cash reserves to supplement per-pupil funding.

Opponents of that proposal said even though it did not allow districts to raise property taxes during the three-year window to offset the cash reserve spending, districts likely would be forced to raise property taxes down the road to refill those reserves.

Thede admitted the proposal was a temporary solution but said she thinks it would have helped districts until lawmakers could devise a long-term solution.

“Now, we’re just not going to do anything. I think that’s irresponsible,” Thede said. “We have a bill that at least would have taken a little bit of the pain and given us some time to work on this. We’re not doing that, though. We chose not to do it.”

Thede represents a portion of the Quad Cities area that has become the flash point in the per-pupil spending debate.

Davenport schools Superintendent Art Tate has pledged to defy state law by covering the per-pupil spending difference in the 2017-2018 district budget with money from the district’s reserve accounts. Such action, which Tate said is necessary to avoid further program and staff reductions, could result in the suspension of Tate’s education license.

Davenport is among the districts in the state allowed to spend the least amount per pupil. Those at the highest level spend $175 more per pupil.

If Davenport was allowed to spend at the highest level, it would mean $2.8 million more in its budget.

There said some districts are at a tipping point. She said a math teacher told her that the teacher has 34 students in one class.

“You can’t, year after year, have that many kids in a classroom,” Thede said. “There’s going to be some kids who fall behind.”

Buses and drivers

Transportation funding is similarly hampering many rural school districts. The average Iowa school district spends a little more than $300 per student on transportation, but some districts spend roughly triple that.

“That money is going for buses and bus drivers, not for education,” the Iowa State Education Association’s Hudson said.

Devoting new money to balance districts that spend more than the statewide average would cost the state $20 million to $30 million, according to state estimates.

Hudson, who has been involved with state government for three decades, said he thinks the root issue is inadequate general school funding, which has magnified the issues in these specific budget areas.

“I think the biggest problem right now is (legislators) are saying their priority is education, but you look at one chamber that is cutting taxes like crazy (referring to the Republican-controlled House), and the other (the Democratic-controlled Senate) doesn’t have revenues to do both,” Hudson said.

“I’ve never seen (legislators) put tax breaks before education until six years ago. Never in my 30 years have I seen (education) pitted against tax issues like I have in the last four or five years.”

Some Davenport-area legislators remain hopeful of resolution this year.

Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, said he hopes one of the proposals will be resurrected.

Smith had his own legislation, which would have allowed districts to make up per-pupil spending from just the interest on their cash reserves, but it did not survive the legislative deadline.

“We’re continuing to look for ways that take the bills that were proposed and get them passed, whether in an amendment form or in the standing (appropriation) bills, and get a short-term fix and a long-term fix done,” Smith said.

“I’m not giving up hope on this year. We’re going to keep working on it and just keep going until we adjourn.”

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