When planning began for the Facilities Master Plan five years ago, negative impacts from political ideological shifts were largely unknown.
The devastating impact that is a product of science-denying religious conservatives like billionaire Libertarians David and Charles Koch, far-right anti-public school think tanks, and school choice policies promoted by the American Legislative Executive Council — is only now becoming apparent.
In 2017 the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy reported “17 states currently divert a total of over $1 billion per year toward private schools … legislation has been introduced that would further the ability of wealthy individuals to undermine the public education system and profit off their donations to nonprofits serving private schools.”
The presidential election of school choice advocates Donald Trump and Mike Pence, and their secretary of education appointment of religious conservative and voucher advocate Betsy DeVos changes the scene for school funding in ways few could have imagined a year ago.
When the facilities plan was being formulated no one involved in its development knew that pro-voucher/pro-school choice Republicans would control the Governorship and both houses of the Iowa Legislature. Nor that they would initiate a full-court press for the diversion of tax dollars from public education to private schools.
But as media outlets reported, the idea was seriously debated during the last legislative session. It’s possible a school choice or voucher program could pass in the upcoming session, with some percentage of already inadequate state dollars redirected to parents in the form of vouchers used to send children to private schools.
This will negatively impact the operational budget of the Iowa City Community School District. When a student leaves ICCSD to attend a school outside the district — Christian Heritage, Regina, Clear Creek Amana, Solon, etc. — the district’s allocation from the state follows that student.
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For the 2016-17 school year 94 students from other districts enrolled in ICCSD while 426 students left; the negative net difference of 332 students cost more than $2 million in state aid.
The money that pays operational expenses — teachers’ and staff salaries, busing, utilities, etc. — comes from the general fund, which has two major income streams: state per pupil allocation, which has been steadily decreasing, and property taxes. In FY 2016-17 the state per pupil allocation was $6,621 and the district received approximately $79 million. The diversion of $2 million plus to other schools contributed to the district’s inability to give teachers a decent raise (although a board majority managed to raise the superintendent’s pay by nearly 5 percent).
If completed as proposed, the second half of the facilities plan would overbuild the district’s projected enrollment forecasts by 1,896. Students leaving the district if a state sanctioned voucher program is implemented will cause additional empty seats. The consequent loss of millions in state aid will cause further cutbacks in educational programs, including teacher salaries and benefits, and provide insufficient money to maintain buildings.
Dreams of many new classrooms and grand athletic facilities are understandable, but if we cannot pay for the cost of operating them, the only choices will be to increase property taxes or to close schools and increase busing.
We will pay not only an increase in property taxes to pay off the bond, but will shortly see an increase in the school property tax levy to offset steadily decreasing state funding. By state law, not a single penny of the proposed $191.5 million bond can be used for operational expenses. Passing this bond proposal isn’t the solution for ICCSD’s problems. We need a smaller bond, new student population forecasts, and funding more in sync with what the district — not just the wealthy — can afford.
• Carol deProsse and Caroline Dieterle of Iowa City have worked on numerous local issues over the past four decades and have supported past school bond requests.