Iowa House Republicans unveiled a plan Thursday that would devote $10 million to equalizing school transportation costs and extend a sales tax that is expected to provide billions of dollars for school infrastructure projects over 20 years.
The plan is intended to supplement a proposed $32 million increase in per-pupil costs, which is less than what many public school advocates had hoped to see.
“We’ve done a lot of listening to parents and teachers and superintendents and school board members and rural and urban districts,” said House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls. “So we’re in the process of listening to all these people, and that has influenced the package that we are putting together this year.”
Public school advocates have long sought a more equitable way to fund transportation costs, which vary widely by district.
The West Burlington Independent School District, for example, spends $9.56 per student — the lowest amount in the state, according to data from the Iowa Association of School Boards. But in the North Winneshiek Community School District, where it is most expensive, it costs $969.60 to transport each student to and from school.
“We’re right in the middle of a reorganization vote next week with Decorah,” said North Winneshiek Superintendent Tim Dugger. “If we’d had this (bill) several years ago we may not be trying to consolidate. … This has been going on for years, and we’ve tried to explain our situation and what we’re dealing with. It’s just too late for us.”
Dugger said about one-sixth of the money the school district receives from the state goes toward transportation costs. He said that if those costs were brought down to the statewide average, which is $314.38 per student, the district could put more money toward classroom resources or toward hiring a new teacher.
The plan Republican leaders announced Thursday calls for the creation of a state fund that would distribute money to the school districts where the disparity is most pronounced. They said they plan to make a one-time $10 million commitment to that fund.
“We’re still working on that exact (distribution) formula,” Rogers said. “But obviously we want to give attention to the most needy of rural districts that are struggling with this right now.”
The plan also calls for a 20-year extension of the state’s one-cent sales tax, known as SAVE, which is set to expire in 2029. That program allows school school districts to bond against the tax revenue to fund building repairs, new construction and classroom technology.
Many school superintendents say they’ve already bonded against the full lifetime of that revenue stream and need an extension to fund future projects.
Lawmakers hope to extend the tax as a way to provide “long-term predictability for our schools and (to give) them the resources that they need to build safe classrooms for our students, modern classrooms for our students,” said Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Marion.
The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency said it currently estimates a 20-year extension of that tax would generate between $15.45 billion and $16.12 billion for school districts across the state.
However, Hinson noted an extension may be paired with some changes to the way the money is spent.
She said the Legislature would like to see more of the money go toward buying down property tax rates in districts where taxes exceed the statewide average. She said lawmakers also are considering adding another layer of oversight and accountability for districts that spend the money on athletics facilities.
“I think the priority is on schools,” Hinson said. “If a school needs a boiler and they build an athletic facility, people might think those priorities were a little bit backwards. So I think what we’re trying to do is make sure dollars go to what they should go to first as a priority.”
House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said the House has had preliminary conversations with the Senate and the governor’s office about the direction they’d like to go.
“Right now there’s broad agreement on the topics,” she said.
Dugger said he appreciates the broader package of funding initiatives for schools in addition to the one percent per-pupil funding increase.
“Those things definitely will help Iowa schools, especially the rural schools,” he said. “But as far as North Winn, we’re about three or four years too late with this (transportation) equity piece.”
Brianne Pfannenstiel, email@example.com
Des Moines Register