Superintendents say school funding passed by lawmakers is still not enough
The 2.3 percent increase in school funding approved by the Iowa House and Senate, while better than recent years, is still not enough to meet the needs of local schools, central Iowa superintendents said this week.
“Two percent over time really covers just those annual increases,” said Ballard Superintendent Ottie Maxey.
The Republican-controlled House (Republicans hold a 54-46 edge over Democrats in the chamber) passed its version of the school spending measure on Monday. The Senate, where Republicans hold a 32-18 margin over Democrats, followed suit on Feb. 13, approving the House version of the bill.
As approved, $89.3 million in new money for K-12 schools will be included in the new budget, increasing school spending to $3.3 billion for the 2019-20 school year. It now goes to the desk of Gov. Kim Reynolds for her signature.
Maxey and Matt Patton, the superintendent of the Roland-Story school district, said the additional money will only allow schools to increase salary and benefits for staff.
“This is an opportunity for the raises for staff,” Patton said. “That 2 percent has to be spread. We pay salaries first, we have to buy our textbooks and other sources. We certainly will not have money left over.”
Financially supporting utility expenses such as fuel for buses, lights and energy will not be possible with the new increase, the superintendents said.
“(The increase) puts us in a difficult situation,” Maxey said. “We want to be competitive in the labor market. You need to give employees raises and health insurance, those rates increase annually. It’s a challenging budget time.”
Maxey said the past eight years of school funding have been the lowest historically that Iowa has seen since the funding formula was created in the 1970s. Last year, the school funding increased by only 1 percent, and 1.1 percent the year before.
“I understand that the challenges that the legislature and the governor had,” he said. “We appreciate the increase from last year, but it was not an abundance of funds.”
In previous years, many school districts had to make budget cuts due to the low increase of funds. Patton said his district had to make sacrifices and cuts last year, but this year he said he doesn’t see that happening.
Ames school district Chief Financial Officer Christine Stensland said the district plans to use the new funds to update curriculum, lower class size, provide systems of support and ensure they have competitive wages for staff and substitutes.
Maxey said if there was greater funding from the state, that money would be invested in the students’ needs.
“Every year, we are left to make some tough decisions and (the district) probably (does) not source as much as the (curriculum) materials as we would like,” he said. “Enhancing the curriculum that we are already looking hard to provide (for students).”
Patton would like to make lives for teachers easier and give each student a greater focus for learning opportunities.
“We would reduce class sizes, and add more teachers,” he said.
Both Patton and Maxey said another student service they would like to expand is for students needing the most support: those who face mental illness and behavioral challenges.
“There are certainly additional needs that we will continue to advocate for,” Maxey said. “We would utilize additional funding to support our neediest students that are experiencing challenges with mental health and behavior intervention services.”
Patton said a mental health liaison travels to the Roland-Story School District once a week to speak with students and staff that may need their services. He said he would really enjoy having even a part-time therapist throughout each week to expand that service.
Overall, both principals said the increase will help more than previous years. Maxey said the decision for budgets is difficult, so he understands giving Iowa schools a bigger increase from last year is good for them.
“We are grateful for 2 percent because it is more than the 1 percent we received last year,” Maxey said. “I want to reinforce that I understand the challenges that our representatives and our governor face, and we appreciate that the funding decision is being made at a timely manner.”
Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a statement after Monday’s House vote, saying she commended lawmakers for passing “critical school funding legislation for educators and students.
“This historic investment in education will help us continue preparing our young people for a technology-driven economy and global marketplace,” she said in the statement.