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Area school boards tackle tough issues

By ROXANNE DASS

Area school board representatives from Iowa, Benton and Poweshiek counties met with members of the Iowa Association of School Boards and area legislators to discuss education updates from the 2010 legislative session.

Mary Gannon of the IASB, Rep. Eric Palmer, D-Oskaloosa; Rep. Betty DeBoef, R-What Cheer; and Sen. Tim Kapucian, R-Keystone, sat down for questions at the Carnforth Inn, rural Victor, on Jan. 28 as they listened to concerns from school board superintendents and members.

Topping the list of discussion items was the allowable growth, which is set for 2 percent in fiscal year 2011.

“We are aware the budget is tight and the legislature basically has two options,” said Gannon. “Either reduce the allowable growth rate or reduce the state’s contribution to the existing 2 percent.”

Allowable growth rate refers to the amount of state aid each school district receives. It is determined by applying the state’s percent of growth to the previous year’s cost per pupil.

Gannon said the IASB prefers the reduction in the state’s contributions because a reduction in the rate would severely impact schools districts by limiting their spending authority. Allowing schools to maintain their spending authority allows the boards to respond better to the needs of the districts, said Gannon.

According to state figures, Gannon said the allowable growth is still about $350 million short of funding.

Palmer said he hoped the schools would receive the funding, but with the economy, it would be hard to get the money.

“If the intention is if they say 2 percent, then they intend to give you the 2 percent allowable growth,” he said. “But it’s going to be tough and that’s one reason it was delayed on the budget.”

When asked for advice on how to plan school budgets, DeBoef and Kapucian said districts should act like there is no allowable growth at all.

“The superintendents that I’ve talked to were probably upset, but my best advice is to plan for zero allowable growth and hope you get a little extra,” said DeBoef.

“I agree with Betty. If you plan for zero and you get a little more down the road, that’s better than planning for 2 percent and not getting anything,” said Kapucian. “Hopefully the economy will get better and you can get that.”

DeBoef said that all school districts would be affected by the economy this year, no matter how you slice it.

“When you start the year a billion dollars in the red and schools take up 60 percent of the budget, we can’t protect schools from some of the pain,” she said. “Some of this will shift onto the property tax payers unless their districts have over 20 percent reserves, which very few have.”

RACE TO THE TOP

The Race to the Top grant has been filed, but Gannon said several schools would probably withdraw their applications.

“We have concerns there are things in the plan that they don’t know about,” said Gannon. “One is the elimination of social promotion, which I imagine several of you don’t know about.”

Dr. Carol Montz, Williamsburg School District superintendent, was concerned if a school didn’t submit an application or withdrew, then this would eliminate them from applying the next time around.

Gannon assured her this would not be the case and the government was willing to work with school districts.

“If schools want to withdraw, then the government will work with you,” she said.

PPEL

Gannon reported on a bill that would expand a district’s use of their PPEL funds. The PPEL funds are specifically limited to expenditures that qualify as infrastructure or for property tax or debt relief.

The bill allows PPEL to be used for general fund and for the use of technology and software purchases under $500 and for transportation. It also allows districts to hire contract employees.

Some people advocate that school districts be allowed to use these funds to make up for state funding shortfalls, but the IASB opposes using PPEL for funding shortfalls because much of the money generated by this tax has already been obligated. Very few districts would actually benefit if they are allowed to use these fund to cover state shortfalls, said Gannon.

Gannon also said diverting the funds into other uses would negatively impact bond rating, stating that many districts use of the receipt of the statewide school infrastructure tax funds to back bonds.

UNFUNDED MANDATES

Unfunded mandates during these economic times have burdened school district budgets, said Gannon.

Legislators told the IASB that bills with a significant impact won’t be moved, but Gannon said she has seen otherwise.

“I have seen some that are moving and I’m shocked,” she said.

One unfunded mandate that has been moving through the legislature states that employees should pay off all accrued leave when a position is eliminated.

“It’s bills like that I’m most concerned about,” said Gannon. “There are also a lot of little bills that don’t cost much but add up when you get a lot of them.”

One of the “little bills” Gannon spoke of was the use of green cleaning products in the schools.

“I understand the reason and green cleaning costs just a little more than what you probably use now, but it requires research,” she said. “A lot of schools don’t have the support staff to do that research because they were the only people schools could eliminate during cuts.”

DeBoef pointed out that several unfunded mandates are handed down from the federal government, and several of these mandates (such as requiring schools to have a school nurse, librarian and counselor which receive no funding) put districts in the position where they must cut corners on education.

HEALTHY KIDS ACT

Overburdening schools with acts and mandates was a concern to several area school boards, such as the Healthy Kids Act, said Montz.

“The intent is really good, but it has increased the burden on school districts to get more physical activity into the school day between classes,” she said. “I know it’s our responsibility to keep our children healthy, but it also increases our parental responsibility to students.”

Palmer admitted some parts of the Healthy Kids Act was probably overkill, but other parts were well worth the effort.

“I admit, we probably overdid it with the parental log of children’s activities, but the act did have some good, like the emphasis on dental health,” he said. “I’ve seen several letters in the Des Moines Register that say dental health will be positive in the long run.”tricts.

“If schools want to withdraw, then the government will work with you,” she said.

PPEL

Gannon reported on a bill that would expand a district’s use of their PPEL funds. The PPEL funds are specifically limited to expenditures that qualify as infrastructure or for property tax or debt relief.

The bill allows PPEL to be used for general fund and for the use of technology and software purchases under $500 and for transportation. It also allows districts to hire contract employees.

Some people advocate that school districts be allowed to use these funds to make up for state funding shortfalls, but the IASB opposes using PPEL for funding shortfalls because much of the money generated by this tax has already been obligated. Very few districts would actually benefit if they are allowed to use these fund to cover state shortfalls, said Gannon.

Gannon also said diverting the funds into other uses would negatively impact bond rating, stating that many districts use of the receipt of the statewide school infrastructure tax funds to back bonds.

UNFUNDED MANDATES

Unfunded mandates during these economic times have burdened school district budgets, said Gannon.

Legislators told the IASB that bills with a significant impact won’t be moved, but Gannon said she has seen otherwise.

“I have seen some that are moving and I’m shocked,” she said.

One unfunded mandate that has been moving through the legislature states that employees should pay off all accrued leave when a position is eliminated.

“It’s bills like that I’m most concerned about,” said Gannon. “There are also a lot of little bills don’t cost much but add up when you get a lot of them.”

One of the “little bills” Gannon spoke of was the use of green cleaning products in the schools.

“I understand the reason and green cleaning costs just a little more than what you probably use now, but it requires research,” she said. “A lot of schools don’t have the support staff to do that research because they were the only people schools could eliminate during cuts.”

But DeBoef pointed out that several unfunded mandates are handed down from the federal government, but several of these mandates (such as requiring schools to have a school nurse, librarian and counselor which no funding) put districts in the position where they must cut corners on education.

HEALTHY KIDS ACT

Overburdening schools with acts and mandates was a concern to several area school boards, such as the Healthy Kids Act, said Montz.

“The intent is really good, but it has increased the burden on school districts to get more physical activity into the school day between classes,” she said. “I know it’s our responsibility to keep our children healthy, but it also increases our parental responsibility to students.”

Palmer admitted some parts of the Healthy Kids Act was probably overkill, but other parts were well worth the effort.

“I admit, we probably overdid it with the parental log of children’s activities, but the act did have some good, like the emphasis on dental health,” he said. “I’ve seen several letters in the Des Moines Register that say dental health will be positive in the long run.”

UPDATED February 10, 2010 1:10 PM

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