Education

Lawmakers give 'welcome relief' to rural school busing costs

One-time boost could set the stage for future aid, representative says

(FILE PHOTO) A school bus is seen near wind turbines surrounding Adair, Iowa on Tuesday, May 16, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
(FILE PHOTO) A school bus is seen near wind turbines surrounding Adair, Iowa on Tuesday, May 16, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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One of the starkest inequities among Iowa school districts is the amount of money that vast, rural school districts must spend transporting students from their homes to school, compared with those costs for more compact, urban districts.

A handful of districts spend near $900 per student on busing, including Delwood Community School District about 60 miles east of Cedar Rapids. The statewide average cost per pupil is about $315.

Legislation that cleared the Iowa House and Senate and is expected to be signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds would address funding inequities in school transportation costs, allocating $11.2 million among 140 school districts, including the Delwood district.

The $11.2 million comes on top of a $32 million increase in state aid for all public schools approved by legislators.

If so many of the Delwood district’s state dollars weren’t taken up by high transportation costs, Superintendent Todd Hawley said, they could be invested into the district’s classrooms.

In the Delwood district, which operates one school and has about 200 students, Senate File 455 would put almost $90,000 more in its general fund, which is used to pay for instructional materials and staffing.

“That has a huge impact because we’re going to be able to use those dollars for supporting students,” Hawley said. “ … We’re just starting the budget process for our district (for next year), and we’ll be looking at how we can spend that money on students and staff. That can involve curriculum, can involve technology, it can involve just things that we normally can’t support, but now will be able to.”

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Increasing opportunities for rural school districts otherwise strapped by high busing costs was the goal of the legislation, said Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton.

“A lot of the issues facing rural schools hinge around this issue of funding for transportation, because if you’re funding transportation, you’re not funding a lot of the things that maybe an urban school can,” she said.

“A lot of the issues facing rural schools hinge around this issue of funding for transportation, because if you’re funding transportation, you’re not funding a lot of the things that maybe an urban school can."

- Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton

Funding inequities among school districts have been at the forefront of some legislators’ and educators’ minds for years, said Kim Huckstadt, a school finance expert and assistant professor at the University of Northern Iowa.

“For those who are spending a greater amount on transportation, it’s going to be welcomed relief,” Huckstadt said. “It still isn’t going to equalize it entirely, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.”

The transportation money allocated in SF 455 is a one-time boost, Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, said, though he hopes legislators will continue to allocate funds to address the inequity in coming years.

“We wanted to start the discussion and start the process,” Rogers said. “Hopefully, that will continue. But we really wanted to address those needs above and beyond the (state supplemental aid).”

Because the additional $90,000 for Delwood isn’t promised in subsequent years, Hawley said he likely won’t invest it in any recurring costs, such as a new staff member. But having the money “certainly helps for next year,” he said.

“It takes some of the burden off,” Hawley said.

SF 455 also allocates $2.8 million to address per-pupil funding inequities among Iowa schools.

Since Iowa’s school funding formula was put in place in the 1970s, some districts have been allowed to spend as much as $175 more per student than others.

A $5 increase to the per-pupil allocation of 161 districts will dent that gap.

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“To me. it’s more of a symbolic gesture rather than having a significant impact financially,” UNI’s Huckstadt said. “Don’t get me wrong, every district would accept every additional dollar they can get, but to me this just acknowledges that there is an inequity. ... It’s an important step, and I hope it will be the starting point for the conversation moving forward.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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