Schools brace for small budget increase

$32 million more statewide will go quickly, local officials say

The Iowa City school district opened a third high school last fall to help keep pace with a growing enrollment. Still, an expected increase in state aid of just 1 percent for next academic year won’t be enough to reduce class sizes in the district, according to Superintendent Stephen Murley. “(T) his kind of funding does not keep up, and it doesn’t allow us to hire essential staff to accommodate students in our district,” he said. Above, an open house was held for Liberty High on Aug. 12, 2017, shortly before it opened. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Iowa City school district opened a third high school last fall to help keep pace with a growing enrollment. Still, an expected increase in state aid of just 1 percent for next academic year won’t be enough to reduce class sizes in the district, according to Superintendent Stephen Murley. “(T) his kind of funding does not keep up, and it doesn’t allow us to hire essential staff to accommodate students in our district,” he said. Above, an open house was held for Liberty High on Aug. 12, 2017, shortly before it opened. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

A new school is set to open in the Solon school district this August, but Superintendent Davis Eidahl doesn’t expect to have the budget to make any new hires to staff it.

The Solon district won’t be able to afford a librarian, nurse or counselor for the new fourth- and fifth-grade school, he said, should state legislators approve a plan to increase state aid for K-12 schools by only 1 percent next fiscal year.

“We’ll just have to do our best with staffing the building with the minimum essential positions,” Eidahl said.

Although legislators’ K-12 funding plan — which missed a Thursday approval deadline, but is expected to be taken up again this week — would mean $32 million more for public schools statewide, many school officials in the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City area say it won’t be enough to keep up with their rising costs and growth.

“We’re bursting at the seams in the elementary school,” Eidahl said.

That led the district to build the new intermediate school, which was financed by the state’s penny sales tax for schools, known as SAVE.

SAVE funds can be used only for facilities projects, while the bulk of state supplemental aid pays for personnel. In the Solon district, raises built into its teacher contracts will require all of the state’s added money.

“The increase to the teacher contract alone will exhaust the entire 1 percent increase,” Eidahl said. Come July, teachers there will be in the final year of a three-year contract.

Iowa school districts have until April 15 to finalize their budgets for the upcoming academic year.

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In districts where enrollment in growing, the legislature’s funding increase also won’t keep budgets from tightening.

In the Iowa City school district, Superintendent Steve Murley said the small increase likely will stunt the growth of the district’s staff.

“Obviously we’re growing in enrollment, and that’s a plus for us,” Murley said. “But this kind of funding does not keep up, and it doesn’t allow us to hire essential staff to accommodate students in our district.”

Classrooms across the Iowa City district have become more and more crowded, especially at the junior high and high school levels. There, Murley said classrooms can have as many as 36 students.

“My biggest frustration is this is yet one more year in a number of years in which we’ve underfunded public education,” Murley said. “ ... My costs go up between 3 and 4 percent every year. When you only have 1 percent of state supplemental aid every year, it doesn’t cover the cost increases.”

A 1 percent bump also would be “very disappointing” for the Linn-Mar Community School District, a spokesman said.

“If the trend continues, we would have to take a serious look at all aspects of our operating budget,” said Matthew May. “ ... In all likelihood, this will limit future purchasing and possibly hiring decisions.”

Another growing district, Clear Creek Amana, also expects staffing and class sizes to be impacted, Superintendent Tim Kuehl said.

“It stinks, but were blessed compared to other districts where it’s not growing,” he said.

BUDGET EFFECTS ON SHRINKING DISTRICTS

In the Cedar Rapids school district, where enrollment has decreased by more than 1,000 students over the last decade, small increases to state aid for schools often are compounded by low enrollment as aid is distributed among districts on a per-pupil basis.

Superintendent Brad Buck said he doesn’t know yet whether the district will avoid cuts because it still is in negotiations with its unions.

“If we are to settle with our groups with more money than comes in, then we’d potentially have to make reductions,” Buck said. “ ... We’re bargaining in good faith, so I don’t know what those numbers will be.”

Regardless of where contracts are set, Buck said a 1 percent increase would be a “very challenging number.”

“Our desire is to give our staff a fair increase that at minimum keeps up with inflation,” Buck said. “We would like to do better than that, and keep up with operations increases.”

In the Marion Independent school district, where enrollment has also fallen, Superintendent Chris Dyer said rising personnel costs alone will increase the district’s operating costs by nearly 3 percent.

“We are managing our resources to maintain our programs, staffing, and quality of educational opportunities,” Dyer said in an email. “ ... In the short term, this year, we can manage. In the long term we must serve our negative cash flow with changes to our current expenses.”

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In the Mount Vernon district, where enrollment also has dipped over the last decade, resources will be stretched — though Superintendent Greg Batenhorst said the district is “in a better position” than many others.

“We will need to be very judicious in our spending and programming and materials we buy,” Batenhorst said. “ ... To be able to recruit and retain quality educators will become more difficult because 70 to 80 percent of a district’s budget is tied up in salary and benefits.”

Although the legislature’s proposed state supplemental aid level will stress districts’ budgets, Cedar Rapids’ Buck pointed to the Iowa Senate’s efforts last week as potential relief.

The Senate approved a plan that would have committed additional funds to address inequities among districts over transportation and per-pupil costs.

The Senate attached the plan to a school funding bill it sent to the House, where it was rejected. House leaders said they would rather address the issues in a separate bill.

The chairman of the House education budget committee, Rep. Cecil Dolecheck, R-Mount Ayr, has promised to address transportation inequity in legislation this week.

If inequities are addressed consistently over the next decade, Buck said it could add millions more to the Cedar Rapids district’s annual budget.

“Long-term, that’s a real number for us on our budget for sure,” he said.

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

Erin Murphy of The Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau and James Q. Lynch of The Gazette contributed.

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