Iowa legislators address school funding concerns

The Iowa Legislature has not provided stable and predictable funding for schools over the past four years, state Rep. Cindy Winckler said Saturday.

“If education is not our number one priority, that really saddens me, because everything else is based on that, an educated workforce,” said Winckler, D-Davenport, chair of the House subcommittee on the education budget.

Winckler’s comments came Saturday during a Legislative Forum, where an audience of more than 30 questioned nine area lawmakers on various issues happening in the state. 

The forum is sponsored by the Scott County Business and Professional Women, the Scott County Farm Bureau, the American Association of University Women and the Iowa State Education Association.

Topics discussed Saturday ranged from anti-bullying bills and funding for community colleges to mental health and distracted driving.

According to Winckler, the legislature in 2012 failed to set allowable growth, which is the percentage increase of per-pupil cost calculated for the upcoming budget year. That caused allowable growth to default to 0 percent, she said.

Three out of every four districts statewide had to apply for a budget guarantee, which allowed them to raise property tax to the level that would generate 101 percent of their current funding level, she said.

Lawmakers passed a sweeping reform measure last May that set an allowable growth model of 2-2-4 that would give an increase of 2 percent plus a one-time payment equal to 2 percent in 2014 and 4 percent growth for 2015.

This legislative session, the Democrat-controlled Senate has asked for a 6 percent increase, while the Republican-controlled House wants to stick with a multi-year funding formula.

State law calls for affordable growth to be approved 30 days after the session opens in January, but lawmakers have acknowledged that it likely will be set closer to the end.

“All politics aside, our schools are suffering,” said Davenport teacher Dan Flaherty. “Our board is considering budget cuts yet again, while we’re building infrastructure all over the district. The money’s just not there in the education fund.”

Rep. Linda Miller, R-Bettendorf, said the current process of setting allowable growth “doesn’t make a lot of sense” and should be reviewed.

However, she worries that if the Legislature sets allowable growth at 6 percent, and there is a downturn in the economy, “we would put ourselves in a position that we couldn’t live up to.”

Winckler said if education is truly the foundation of a strong economy and society, the Legislature should be able to set allowable growth two years at a time so that school districts know what to expect in per pupil spending.

“It’s not about being able to forecast whether the revenue will be there,” Winckler said. “It’s about where our priorities are.”

Pablo Haake, a Davenport Central High School junior and chair of the Iowa Advisory Youth Council, said a big focus for the council this year has been bullying, and Gov. Terry Branstad’s proposed anti-bullying legislation.

Earlier this month, the Senate passed a bill and sent it to the House. However, the bill seems to be at a standstill, Haake said.

“We are concerned that it might not get to a vote this year,” Haake said.

Winckler said the original bill appropriated $25,000 to provide a webinar for teachers statewide. The Senate wants to appropriate $1 million, which will also help establish a state office of support and analysis for safe schools.

The Senate also wants to provide $750,000 for grants to school districts to aid in anti-bullying efforts.

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