IOWA LEGISLATURE

Iowa Republicans open K-12 school funding negotiations

About $16M separates House and Senate proposals

Cedar Rapids Community School District buses at the Education Leadership Support Center in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Aug
Cedar Rapids Community School District buses at the Education Leadership Support Center in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, August 7, 2014. (The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — Legislative Republicans have filed competing plans to increase state aid for Iowa’s K-12 schools, with House Republicans starting at a 2.5 percent base level addition and Senate Republicans at 2.1 percent more as they negotiate the first major piece of the fiscal 2021 budget.

Republicans in both chambers also are proposing to increase funds by $7.65 million to address inequities in transportation costs — particularly rural districts that face outsized expenses in running school buses — and covering an extra $10 per pupil (or $5.8 million) to address property tax inequities that persists decades after Iowa changed its school funding formula. State funding streams to address the inequities were started two years ago.

Senate Republicans want to add nearly $2.5 million to provide resources for schools dealing with disruptive classroom situations, which Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Michael Breitbach, a Strawberry Point Republican, said brings their state aid increase to about 2.48 percent.

Overall, House Republicans are proposing a K-12 education funding increase of about $107.8 million and Senate Republicans are offering a $91.65 million increase.

Earlier this month, Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed a $101.2 million funding package increase that called for a 2.5 percent boost in state foundation school aid.

The current base state cost per pupil under Iowa’s K-12 foundation funding formula is $6,880. A 2.1 percent increase would bring that to $7,024, which would be $144 higher, and a 2.5 percent increase would result in $7,052 — an increase of $172 per student, according to the Legislative Services Agency. In all, the state’s general fund currently devotes about $3.3 billion to K-12 education in 327 school districts.

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said his caucus felt the governor’s proposed increase was “very reasonable” and House Republicans felt “we could afford do to it and it gave the schools some flexibility on a couple of the pieces.”

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Grassley said he expects the Legislature will be able to comply with a law requiring state aid to Iowa’s school districts for the next fiscal year be set in the first 30 days of this year’s session.

“I think that’s doable within the budget that we’ve put together and our parameters,” said House Education Chairman Cecil Dolecheck, a Mount Ayr Republican, of the 2.5 percent boost.

“I think it gives most schools a figure that they can live with and work with to be able to help improve teacher salaries and put more into the students as well. We’ll see where that goes,” he added. “We felt the 2.5 percent was about as high as we could go within the budget constraints that we’re looking at.”

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, also was optimistic the Legislature could meet the Feb. 13 legal deadline. “This is a reliable, sustainable, predictable amount of funding,” he said.

How difficult the task will be of reaching a compromise funding level “depends upon if you want to spend any money on anything else in government,” Sen. Breitbach said. “We’ve got about $240 million in new money. There’s a lot of things that we’re going to have to do” — including increasing funding for the state’s share of the Medicaid program as well as state universities, community colleges and preschool budget items.

Dolecheck said he felt the state’s current surplus position puts lawmakers in a place where they can provide more state aid for K-12 schools than in past years.

“We have an opportunity to do a little bit more for students in the classroom than what the 2.1 percent is. We’ll be working to try and get to as close to our position — and hopefully to our position — as we can,” he said.

House Democratic Leader Todd Prichard of Charles City called GOP funding levels “short.”

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Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said a 2.5 percent boost in state aid in fiscal 2021 is “a good starting point” and “would be “a big improvement over where we’ve been” recently.

“The challenges in our classrooms are significant — class sizes have grown, more challenging kids living in poverty are sitting in those seats and need more support,” he said. “We’re moving towards a shortage of teachers in Iowa. In Iowa City, for the first time, we’re having trouble recruiting teachers in our district.”

Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said the funding plans are lower than some education groups had requested, but she called them realistic and achievable.

“We are fully funding exactly what we’re promising and I would suggest that most districts would prefer to have cash in hand than a promise that doesn’t come true,” she said.

The $10 per pupil boost to address property tax inequities, Sinclair said, narrows to about $155 per pupil the disparity between districts receiving the most and the least property tax funding under the formula, which is made up of 87.5 percent in state aid.

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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