Funding leads off education issues facing Legislature
The state could be writing a $400 million check for education if this legislative session goes as planned, according to local lawmakers.
Senate Education Committee chairman Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said the first issue legislators need to tackle is passing an allowable-growth number for the 2013-2014 school year.
The Legislature usually passes an allowable growth bill a year-and-a-half before the year it will take effect, but the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic Senate were unable to come to an agreement on it last year.
Allowable growth defines how much money a student will cost the state and the district.
Teacher salaries and benefits are arguably impacted the most from allowable growth, as teacher salaries make up nearly 80 percent of the education budget in Iowa, according to the Iowa Association of School Boards.
Gary Bengtson, director of business affairs for Carroll Community School District, said the delay has been frustrating because the district has already begun negotiations with the teachers' union.
He said the district has to run a couple of different scenarios for the allowable growth number in order to negotiate for next year.
Bengtson said that if no allowable growth number is settled on, and the district would receive no allowable growth, the district would probably have to start looking at whether or not it would replace the teachers who are retiring. He said personnel is the largest part of the district's budget.
Rep. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, said that for every 1 percent of allowable growth it costs the state roughly $35 million to $40 million.
He said that on top of the allowable growth costs, Gov. Terry Branstad is going to try to pass a teachers compensation plan, which is expected to cost more than $150 million.
That means if a 4 percent allowable growth and the compensation plan are passed, it would cost the state $300 million for K-12 education alone.
Baltimore said if that gets coupled with the Iowa Board of Regents' request for more funding for the public universities, the state will be looking at about $400 million in increased funding for schools.
"I don't know how all of that is going to fit together and ultimately be affordable on a sustainable level from a state perspective," Baltimore said.
State Sen. Jerry Behn, R-Boone, said he has heard the governor speak on coming up with new ways to fund education - a different fund than allowable growth.
Behn said he hasn't seen any of the governor's proposals and wants to keep an open mind on the proposal.
Rep. Dan Muhlbauer, D-Manilla, said he hopes to pass an allowable growth percent as quickly as possible.
He said it's especially important for schools in western Iowa because of the small enrollment.
Muhlbauer said putting a zero percent growth on top of declining enrollment it's tough on schools.
He said it doesn't matter how small a school district is, it will always have basic costs to keep the schools running.
Muhlbauer said a big concern he hears from school districts is without the allowable growth number they can't set a budget.
He said 60 percent of Iowa school districts have 800 or fewer students and each student is generating only about $6,001.
A 2 percent increase would raise the price of each student $120.
"That could make all the difference in our small communities," Muhlbauer said.
He said he'd like to see at least a 2 percent allowable growth passed.
Part of the governor's teachers compensation plan, Quirmbach said, could include bumping beginning teachers' pay up to $35,000 from $28,000.
CCSD's Bengtson said he doesn't think the rise in beginning teachers' pay should affect the district much financially.
Right now starting teachers for Carroll get a basic starting pay of $28,700 and then another $5,480 from a fund from the state that has to go toward teacher salaries.
Bengtson said the state would have to raise the beginning pay quite a bit for it to have an impact on the budget.
He said he thinks that would have more of an impact on smaller schools.
Sen. Mark Segebart, R-Vail, who was elected to take Steve Kettering's spot in the Iowa Senate representing District 26, said he believes the teachers compensation plan is similar to one that Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack proposed in 2001.
He said he understands that teachers need to be paid more, "but what I think what we're missing is what's going to be best for the children."
Segebart wondered if improved test scores would be a direct result from better-paid teachers.
Behn said he's a firm believer in awarding teachers who perform in the classroom but shared the same question on how to quantify an educator's worth.
"I think the biggest thing is how do you measure growth in the classroom?" Behn asked. "How do you reward an excellent teacher?"
Behn said it would be easy to measure the success of a math or science teacher with test scores, but wasn't sure how to rate music or art teachers.
"I'm not opposed to putting money in the system," Segebart said. "What if we do this and nothing changes?"
Muhlbauer said he thinks raising starting pay for teachers would be a good move.
He said he believes higher starting pay could attract better teachers.
Baltimore said he believes there is merit in increasing starting teachers pay, but wasn't sure how that would snowball up with more experienced teachers.
Branstad has also discussed using more experienced teachers as mentors to new teachers, but Baltimore said that would create even more expense for schools.
Baltimore said rural schools can't afford to bring in a substitute, or whatever the case may be, to allow a more experienced teacher to mentor a new teacher in a classroom.
Muhlbauer said the state does have about $1.5 billion in reserves.
School calendars may also be looked at this session.
Legislators have mentioned both school start dates and how to measure a school year as issues.
One proposal that has been kicked around before is measuring school years by hours instead of 180 days.
This wouldn't make the school year longer, but would allow schools to be more flexible when it comes to making up missed days.
Segebart said he'd like to see more flexibility on how schools determine their semester length.
Baltimore said he believes counting hours instead of days could help maximize classroom time for children.
He said it would help students get more class time they are missing because of professional development.
"The school exists to educate the children and if the children are not in the classroom, they are not getting the benefit of education," Baltimore said.
He said there needs to be a time for professional development, but it shouldn't cut into classroom time.
Behn said he wants feedback from parents and schools before he decides what's the best solution to school calendar issues.
He said he's seen successful calendar plans in Florida and Arizona, and doesn't see the point in reinventing the wheel if other states have already been able to come up with successful calendars.
Behn said the state needs to look at what has and has not been successful and go from there.
Muhlbauer said he'd prefer to see allowable growth passed before an alternative calendar is discussed.
"Whether it's days or whether it's hours we can talk about all of those things, but first I want to make sure the funding is there," Muhlbauer said.
As for school start dates, the Legislature currently picks a day that Iowa schools should start and schools have to submit a waiver request in order to get an earlier start date.
"We've got whoever is in charge of granting the waiver doing so willy-nilly, whether the waiver is needed or not," Baltimore said.
He said regardless of when classes starts, Iowa needs to make sure that the kids are in the classroom learning as much as possible.
Baltimore said he also doesn't understand why some schools without air conditioning decide to start during the beginning of August then miss out on school during the afternoons because of the heat.
Segebart said he wouldn't mind if schools could start after Labor Day.
He said the ultimate decision needs to be in the schools' hands, but school districts need to remember to look out for what's best for their neighbors and the rest of the state as well.
Baltimore said he can see both sides of the issue.
"I can see some benefits to having consistency across the state," Baltimore said. "When you've got different schools starting at different times that can create chaotic situation. ... By the same token local communities should have some say in it."
He said he's troubled with the fact that any school district can turn in a waiver and start whenever they want to anyway.
Last year, the state mandated that any third-grade student who was not up to the third-grade reading level either take a summer course or be held back.
It's a decision that has been left up to each student's parents.
While the Legislature was able to pass the testing mandate, it was unable to come to an agreement on how to fund the summer program.
Quirmbach said the governor wanted to put $17 million toward the idea, but the Republicans in the House didn't want to fund that.
He said he hopes that legislators can come to an agreement on that this year.
Other education issues Baltimore expects to hear about this legislative session include implementing the Iowa Core Curriculum and more discussion on preschool.
He said he'd like to see every school in Iowa get full-day kindergarten program started before the state starts worrying too much about preschool.
Behn said he wants discussion on how school districts are letting go teachers.
"The way it is right now, if you're the last teacher hired, you're the first teacher to be let go," Behn said.
He said there needs to be a way to make that decision based on teachers' skill in the classroom.
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