Iowa School Superintendents Feeling Pinched By Governor's Extra Funding Veto

Aug 11, 2015

The controversy flaring over state funding for Iowa’s K-through-12 public schools is focusing on Governor Terry Branstad’s veto of legislation that would have given schools an extra, one-time, $55-million appropriation during this fiscal year.

Forest City school superintendent, Darwin Lehmann, is feeling the fiscal squeeze.  He says his district is spending more than the state is increasing the district’s state aid.

“We are getting one-point-two-five-percent state supplemental aid -- used to be called allowable growth -- that’s seventy-thousand-four-hundred-forty-seven dollars in new money,” he says.   “What we’ll figure on expenses we’ll probably go right around four-percent is what our expenses will increase. So our expenses are going to go up about three-hundred-thousand.”

Lehman says about eighty-percent of those increased expenses is boosting teachers’ compensation.

“We were a little over four-percent with the settlement,” he says.  “That’s going to be higher than what the state average was. We have a two-year agreement with our staff. To get that two-year agreement, and with some plans that are coming, that fit well for us at Forest City this year. And that’s sole package, salary and benefits. That everything included in with that package.”

Forest City’s four-percent salary and benefits package compares to the three-point-fifteen percent average compensation hike among 151-districts reporting to the Iowa Association of School Boards. Still, well above the one-and-a-quarter percent new money coming from the State, and it worries Mount Vernon’s superintendent Gary O’Malley.

“We’re really in a difficult place,” he says.  “All we’re doing is transferring the responsibility from the State to the local taxpayer. It has a negative impact on the quality of our program because we cannot generate under the current situation the revenue we need that we’re losing from the State.”

Governor Branstad contends Iowa’s schools are being well-funded, but now state money is targeted to specific programs, such as improving teacher quality.

“Instead of the old way we used to do things. We gave all this across-the-board money with no accountability, and Iowa kind of stagnated while other states put focus on other things that increased their standards and improved their student achievement,” Branstad says.

“No accountability” is politely telling Iowa’s 336-local school district school boards and administrators that they’ll have less spending discretion, and less state money for collective bargaining agreements.

That’s where some Republican state legislators tried to make changes during the most recent session, trying to modify state laws regarding an arbitrator’s flexibility when school boards and the teacher’s union can’t agree.

Davenport school superintendent, Art Tate, says current law puts school boards at a disadvantage in handling public funds.

“No one is settling for less than three-percent in the state with teachers,” he says.  “That’s just the way it goes. Because of arbitration, and we know that if we go to arbitration you’re going to lose every time.”

Another Eastern Iowa school superintendent and former teacher union negotiator, Maquoketa’s Chris Hoover, agrees.

“I was the Association president when I was teaching in Independence, Iowa,” he says. “The adversarial bargaining, I would say, is definitely tipped in favor of the Association, just from the standpoint of most often arbitrators were looking at ‘can the school afford to pay’.

And that’s because the school board can get the money by increasing local property taxes.

The Iowa State Education Association’s president, Tammy Wawro, dismisses attempts to modify collective bargaining law as distractions.

“Arbitration is not just about money,” she says.  “You can go to arbitration about interests and things like that. It’s one way to have a fair conversation about what needs to happen. But, I really think that’s just muddying the water about school funding.”

And, even on the school management side, Iowa Association of School Boards Deputy Director Galen Houser isn’t disagreeing.

“I think what’s being missed here is that at the very time we’re trying to implement school reform and trying to improve our teachers in the classroom, it’s not like they’re the highest paid teachers in the nation,” he says.  “We were barely able to keep them at the national average. At the same time, we’re trying to create world class schools.”

Governor Branstad says with Democrats controlling Iowa’s Senate, changing Iowa’s collective bargaining law isn’t feasible. So he’s pursing other routes to the goal.

“We want to become best in America again,” he says.  “And I think that’s going to take specific and strategic investments in education that focus on things that really make a difference. It’s not just ‘give us the money…no accountability anymore.”

And, he signs the State budget law.