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DES MOINES - Representatives of Iowa school districts, teachers and administrators Tuesday welcomed a long-awaited legislative decision to give schools about $153.8 million in new money next fiscal year, but said that level will not be adequate for many struggling districts with shrinking enrollments that face layoffs or consolidation.
Members of a House-Senate conference committee voted to recommend the split-control Legislature boost state aid to schools by 2.25 percent beginning July 1 - about $100 million in base funding to go with $53 million for a teacher leadership and compensation initiative. The House and Senate were expected to vote on the compromise soon.
'The 2.25 percent agreement appears to be the best we can get,” said Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, a conference committee co-leader, 'and it's past time to let school boards know how much state aid they'll receive for next year's budgets.”
'I continue to have strong concerns about the low levels of funding that we are providing in the long term for our Iowa local schools,” Bowman added. 'Even with this increase, Iowa's students will have fewer educational opportunities. I believe we will see more of Iowa's rural schools being threatened with forced consolidation.”
While majority House Republicans and Senate Democrats would like to have done more to boost base budgets and fund 'categorical” programs, said co-leader Rep. Ron Jorgensen, R-Sioux City, overall education was getting 87 percent of the $176.6 million in increased revenue available in the $7.351 billion for fiscal 2017.
'We must live within our means,” noted Jorgensen, in voting five senators and two other representatives in passing a fiscal 2017 funding level that likely will require 112 school districts with declining enrollment to prop up their budgets with guaranteed property tax revenue.
House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, refuted claims by critics that schools were getting shortchanged, saying the agreement provides a significant funding commitment that will be sustainable in a tight budget year and marks the a sixth straight yearly increase.
'With an additional $153 million going to schools this budget year, K-12 education is receiving the lion's share of the state's new available revenue,” she said. 'It is clear that education remains the state's top priority.”
Bowman said he hoped Gov. Terry Branstad - who vetoed nearly $56 million in K-12 school funding last July - would approve the legislative compromise.
Branstad spokesman Ben Hammes issued a statement calling Tuesday's compromise 'a step forward for students and schools statewide” in an increasingly challenging state budget cycle.
'The compromise reached sets a high priority on education funding with the majority of new state revenue going to our schools. Gov. Branstad will review the bill in light of the budget numbers received last week ensuring a balanced budget for Iowa taxpayers,” Hammes added.
'We're pleased that they finally came to an agreement and didn't wait until summer. But we believe it's very, very low and it really needs to be much higher,” said Tom Narak of the School Administrators of Iowa. 'We know that all schools are going to have to make some reductions again and that's not good for the children in Iowa.”
Tammy Wawro, president of the 34,000-member Iowa State Education Association, said teachers are disappointed that lawmakers 'will continue to starve our schools and force them to make choices that will negatively impact students.
'Over-crowded classrooms hurt both students who need additional supports and those who shine by not allowing enough specialized time with either. No one wins,” Wawro said in a statement. 'Perhaps most disappointing is the fact that policy makers talk a good line about making students a priority, but in fact their actions don't meet their words.”
Margaret Buckton, a lobbyist for an organization representing urban rural districts, said most districts already have begun 'budget-cutting scenarios” under the 2.25 percent option. She also hoped legislators would set the fiscal 2018 school aid increase yet this session but added 'we're not going to hold our breath.”
'We have seen a lot of pressures,” added Buckton. 'We're down to 333 school districts and we'll likely see small districts trying to figure out how they survive.” Other school representatives said some districts may have to reduce staff levels or program offerings to submit a certified budget by April 15.
Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, voted for the compromise to get state aid to schools in a timely manner but said the outcome shows education no longer is Iowa's top priority with tax cuts whittling down available revenue for spending.
'The budgetary constraints are a self-inflicted wound,” said Quirmbach, who apologized to a number of visiting students who attended the standing-room meeting. 'We could have offered more. We could have done more. We're hurting your future and I apologize for that.”
Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, who joined Rep. Patti Ruff, D-McGregor, in opposing the conference report on Senate Files 174 and 175, choked as she spoke about cuts facing school districts and the missed opportunities for Iowa's young people. 'The 2.25 percent is embarrassing,” she said.
'We expect so much of our teachers and our students, yet we are unwilling to give them the support that they need,” Winckler added. 'I understand the negotiation process. But we certainly could do better.”
Tuesday's action culminated a major budget stalemate in which Branstad had proposed a 2.45 percent increase, House Republicans approved a 2 percent growth rate and Senate Democrats advocated a 4 percent boost.
Conferee Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said legislators 'dropped the ball” over the past four or five years in failing to abide by the state's forward-funding law and adequately fund Iowa's elementary and secondary schools.
'You do have an alternative and it's called an election,” Dvorsky told the crowd who turned out for the half-hour conference meeting, in urging Iowans to look at lawmakers' voting records and support candidates who 'put their votes where their mouth is.”
Click here for an interactive application that shows the impact of the 2.25 percent funding increase on schools across Iowa.