Iowa lawmakers talk education funding, but gap remain

House subcommittee scales back Senates funding proposal

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DES MOINES — Republicans and Democrats in the Iowa Legislature are moving ahead on their promise to quickly pass a school aid funding increase for K-12 school, but they are no closer to closing an $82 million divide on how much more money districts can expect for the next school year.

On Thursday, a three-member House subcommittee amended a Senate-passed bill calling for a 4 percent boost is state aid beginning July 1 to pare the increase back to 2 percent — with each percentage raise representing about $41 million. Gov. Terry Branstad has proposed a 2.45 percent increase.

“I think it’s a stretch to get to 2 percent,” said Rep. Ron Jorgensen, R-Sioux City, chairman of the House Education Committee, which will take up the Senate measures next Tuesday, “but we’re committed to doing all we can to get it to 2 percent.”

House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said she was optimistic lawmakers would move quickly to get a bill to the governor so school districts have adequate lead time to plan their fiscal 2017 budgets, adding “we want to make sure we’re getting a responsible number to schools, one that they can count on.”

However, legislative Democrats said both the House GOP and governor’s funding levels are inadequate to meet the needs of schools facing teacher reductions, course cutbacks, larger class sizes and heavier reliance on property taxes. They pointed to the current year’s increase of 1.25 percent, reached after Branstad vetoed nearly $56 million in one-time money that won bipartisan approval last session.

“Our schools are hurting financially and that’s kind of a self-inflicted wound,” said Tom Narak, a lobbyist representing School Administrators of Iowa, during Thursday’s House subcommittee meeting.

House Democratic Leader Mark Smith of Marshalltown said about three-fourths of Iowa’s K-12 school districts needed to collect more property taxes to cover state funding shortfall, and Margaret Buckton, a lobbyist for both rural and urban school districts, warned that 2 percent would hurt schools with declining enrollment and those struggling to meet expanding demands being placed on education.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said he expected his caucus to stake out its position next Tuesday and proceed with a fiscal 2018 state aid proposal for K-12 schools, as well to meet the state’s forward-funding law that requires that issue to be settled within the session’s first 30 days.

Branstad did not include a state aid proposal for fiscal 2018 in the budget he unveiled earlier this week, and Upmeyer said she expected House Republicans would wait until they receive the March state revenue estimates before considering that issue, even though it would be after the legal requirement.

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