IOWA LEGISLATURE

Corridor school leaders say 2.3% rise in school aid is inadequate

Deal passes mostly on party lines, heads to Gov. Kim Reynolds' desk

Noreen Bush speaks with The Gazette following a Board of Education meeting in May 2019 at the Educational Leadership and
Noreen Bush speaks with The Gazette following a Board of Education meeting in May 2019 at the Educational Leadership and Support Center in Cedar Rapids. Bush, superintendent of the Cedar Rapids school district, said Wednesday she’s worried about state K-12 education funding “over the long term.” (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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Both chambers of the Iowa Legislature on Wednesday approved a 2.3 percent increase — about $85.6 million — to state supplemental aid for education, the largest funding source for Iowa’s 327 public school districts.

In the Cedar Rapids Community School District, the funding level will sustain the district for now, said Superintendent Noreen Bush, who heads the state’s second-largest district. But she worried a string of small education funding increases from the state will push the district’s budget to a breaking point as soon as 2021.

“Over the long term, we won’t be able to continue to sustain with that kind of state supplemental aid,” said Bush, who advocated with the Urban Education Network of Iowa for a 3.75 percent increase. “... This is the general fund — we’re talking about people. This is about our people and how we best serve kids through staffing.

In the Senate, legislators voted 31-17 along party lines — with Republicans in favor — to approve the 2.3 percent increase, which would boost the amount spent on each student from the current $6,880 each to $7,048 for the 2020-21 school year.

The measure passed in the House as well, though not along party lines. Rep. Jeff Shipley, R-Fairfield, voted against the legislation, which passed in a 51-46 vote.

Legislators’ approval sent Senate File 2142 to the desk of Gov. Kim Reynolds, who proposed a slightly larger 2.5 percent increase in her Condition of the State address in January. She is expected to sign the legislation.

Stephen Murley, superintendent of Iowa City Community School District, was pragmatic — if cynical — about the funding level.

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“We’ll make do with what they give us,” Murley said, whose district asked legislators for a 4.5 percent increase to meet growing costs. “That’s what we’ve had to do for the last decade.”

Last year, the Iowa City district cut millions from its budget — primarily by reducing staff at its schools — when the Legislature increased school funding by only 2.1 percent.

With a 2.3 percent bump this time, the district could be able to bring back some of the staff positions it lost last year, Murley said.

Cedar Rapids Schools hasn’t made significant budget cuts since 2016, when it ended its elementary school Spanish program and eliminated 23 teaching positions.

The district will begin its budgeting process Monday at a school board meeting. Bush said this could be the last year the district can “keep it afloat” without cutting costs or raising the property tax rate.

“I worry about our taxpayers,” she said. “If we don’t get funded at the state level, it has to come out of one bucket or another.”

Legislators also move on funding inequities

In addition to the $85.6 million statewide increase to supplemental state aid, Reynolds earlier this session signed an additional $13.5 million in public K-12 school funding. Those funds will help address transportation costs at rural districts and per-pupil spending inequities in some districts.

“This is $100 million, folks. Let’s forget the percentages,” said Sen. Michael Breitbach, R-Strawberry Point, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who noted that made up a major share of the $235 million in new money available for budgeting. “To me, that’s a pretty good shot in the arm.”

However, minority Democrats — who wanted at least a 3 percent increase to keep up with inflation — called the GOP compromise an inadequate funding level that shortchanges students and a failure to meet the Feb. 13 deadline for setting the state level.

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The state-imposed deadline for setting school aid is within 30 days of receiving the governor’s budget proposal.

“We could easily afford to do better by our kids,” said Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, who cited the state’s current budget surplus. “This bill is quite literally too little, too late.”

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

James Q. Lynch of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed.

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