Government

Norris: Davenport schools' funding inequity a moral issue

Ed Tibbetts/Quad-City Times

Democratic candidate for governor John Norris (right) speaks with Davenport School Board me
Ed Tibbetts/Quad-City Times Democratic candidate for governor John Norris (right) speaks with Davenport School Board member Rich Clewell (left) after an education forum Thursday in Davenport.

DAVENPORT — Lagging state revenues shouldn’t be an excuse to put off resolving school funding inequities, John Norris, a Democrat running for governor, said Thursday in Davenport.

Norris, one of seven Democrats in the field, spoke at an education roundtable that his campaign organized.

Much of the discussion centered on the complaint by Davenport schools that other districts can spend up to $175 more per pupil than it can.

School officials and local legislators have been trying to get legislation passed to address the inequity for years. A bill passed the Senate this year to close the gap gradually, but it died after revenue estimates showed the state failing to meet targets.

Since then, Iowa has made cuts to programs and dipped into reserves to close the gap. The budget woes also have made new spending initiatives difficult. But Norris said lagging revenues aren’t a good excuse to not deal with the issue.

“I view it as a fight for justice,” he told the group. What appears to be happening, he said, is “we are willing to find a rationale to shortchange some of the fundamental principles and values we share as Iowans.”

Afterward, Norris blamed what he called excessive tax breaks for limiting Iowa’s spending on education and other areas.

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“We’ve got to roll back some of these tax cuts that have gone to wealthy corporations that put us in this situation,” he said.

Business tax credits and exemptions, along with broader tax cuts in recent years, have been a favorite target of some Democrats. Iowa Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, another gubernatorial candidate who made a stop in Davenport the day before, also targeted the credits. Iowa Department of Revenue data projected that credits would cost $427 million in 2018, a sharp increase from previous years.

Since the school funding equity issue gained prominence, politicians from across the state have, while visiting here, pledged to help out. Still, school board members who attended Thursday’s session expressed frustration at the failure of legislation to pass.

“It’s hard to be positive,” said Rich Clewell, a longtime school board member.

For fiscal 2017, Davenport was allowed to spend $6,591 per student. That’s the spending limit for about half the state’s 333 districts, according to state data. The other half can spend more, with about a half dozen districts allowed to spend $175 more per pupil than Davenport. The average amount a school district could spend for the year was $6,622 per pupil.

Norris, who is from Des Moines, has long roots in Iowa Democratic Party politics. He is a former state party chief and worked for former Sen. Tom Harkin and former Gov. Tom Vilsack. Norris was chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture when Vilsack was secretary. He announced his candidacy earlier this week and was wrapping up a six-day kickoff tour of the state Thursday.

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