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Traditionally, Democrats and Republicans in the Iowa legislature have argued over the amount of state education funding. Now it's a battle just to set an allowable growth level for K-12 school districts. Last year's legislature failed to meet a deadline for approving allowable growth for fiscal year 2014, covering the 2013/2014 academic year. As a result, school districts have no idea how much they will be able to increase their budgets for the fiscal year beginning on July 1, or whether they will be able to increase their budgets at all.
Yesterday the Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate voted along party lines to set allowable growth at 4 percent for the coming fiscal year. Governor Terry Branstad and statehouse Republicans want to put off any decision on allowable growth until the legislature passes another education reform bill. After the jump I've posted background and more details about this issue.
For 40 years, the Iowa legislature has set an "allowable growth" level for K-12 school district budgets every year. You can view the annual percentage increases here (pdf). The first time allowable growth ever slipped below 2 percent was in 2002, when Iowa faced a state budget crunch and the GOP-controlled legislature approved a 1 percent increase.
In 2011, Governor Terry Branstad pushed for an unprecedented zero percent allowable growth for K-12 budgets. He and Republicans who had just taken back the Iowa House wanted no allowable growth for two years in a row. Iowa Senate leaders advocated 2 percent allowable growth for two years. The eventual compromise was zero growth for fiscal year 2012 (covering the 2011/2012 academic year) and 2 percent growth for the current fiscal year.
Since 1995, the legislature has approved the allowable growth level more than a year in advance. Branstad himself signed that provision into law. School board members and district administrators need time to make decisions about programs and staffing levels. During the 2012 legislative session, the Iowa House failed to stick to the schedule by approving an allowable growth for fiscal year 2014.
This week Iowa House and Senate Democrats released results from a survey of 206 Iowa superintendents. The overwhelming majority want the legislature to set a growth level quickly so that administrator's don't have to fly blind this spring, when planning their budgets for the coming academic year.
179 of the 206 respondents (87%) said that aid to local schools must be set by March 1st or earlier to avoid teacher layoffs, crowded classes, and harm to student achievement. [...]
Superintendents almost unanimously (99%) believe that education dollars would be used more effectively if the state returned to setting basic aid to education a year and a half in advance. Iowa law requires this advance budgeting but Governor Branstad and the Republican House refused to follow the law last year.
The local education leaders warned that they will soon be forced to assume there will be no increase in funding for local students in the coming school year. That will be case for 88% of the responding districts if the state has not acted by March 1st. The survey found that the top impacts of zero percent allowable growth will be larger class sizes (72%); delays in upgrading materials (68%), and layoffs of teachers (57%) and classroom associates (51%). The complete results of the survey can be found at www.iowahouse.org .
This page contains the full survey results, and this page contains details for individual school districts. The survey was e-mailed to 348 Iowa school districts on January 22; within a week, 206 superintendents had replied. Budgeting for zero percent growth will require cuts in staff, supplies and/or programming, because school districts face rising costs every year no matter what the legislature approves. Click the links above for details on likely cuts, as well as information on how school districts would likely spend additional funds if lawmakers approve a 4 percent allowable growth for this year.
"We're moving ahead with allowable growth in a premature fashion," said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Red Oak, one of 23 Republicans to vote against Senate File 52.
That drew an incredulous response from Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, chairman of the Senate Education Committee and the bill's floor manager, who noted that lawmakers already are a year out of compliance because the GOP-run Iowa House refused to take up the Senate-passed school funding bill last year as prescribed by state law. "We're violating the law by a year and yet you say we're premature," he said.