Good vs. Great

Grant Wiggins is one of my favorite educational lecturers/writers/researchers/bloggers.  I find him to be refreshing as his perspective is always focused on what is best for kids – in the real world we are part of.  Although an older post from Grant, the following link is worth reading … take a look if you get a chance.

School Finance 101 – Part 2

The first post (couple of weeks ago) dealt primarily with defining and explaining the various funds present/available in a school budget.  A key element in understanding school finance is asking/answering a very basic question:  How are schools funded?  This particular article will share the basics of funding for public schools.

So, where does the money come from for public school budgets?  The simplest explanation involves two sources of school funding: local property taxes and state aid.  Any of us that are property owners have a pretty good understanding of property taxes!  One thing to remember is that property is classified in three categories for taxation purposes:

  • Residential
  • Commercial
  • Agricultural

Each of the three categories is taxed at a different rate, as determined by a government formula.   You may also have heard the term “property tax rollback. “  Property tax rollback means that assessed valuation (residential, commercial, and/or agricultural) is lessened to a smaller amount for the purposes of property taxes.   This is then known as taxable valuation.  Consequently, one pays his/her property tax not on assessed valuation but rather on taxable valuation, e.g., the amount after the rollback. .  For instance, if you have a residential home assessed at $50,000, the government formula “rolls back” your tax liability to your taxable valuation.  Although not totally accurate, a “general rule” on taxable valuation on residential property is that it will equal about 60% of the actual property value.  In this scenario, your taxable valuation on your residential property assessed at $50,000 would actually be $30,000.  The state formula is different for commercial and agricultural land with the rollback at a different rate, but the concept of figuring taxable valuation is the same.  Please note since the state government uses a standardized formula there is no local control whatsoever in figuring taxable valuation.

Another important component in understanding school finance is how the state figures the amount of total property tax revenue a district can/must raise and how much state aid the district will receive.  In an effort to provide equity between all public school districts in Iowa, the state sets a total amount “each student is worth,” known as state cost per pupil.  For 2014-2015 the amount is approximately $6,300.  Whatever the amount, it is multiplied by the number of students listed on the certified enrollment from the previous year (completed in October).  This then tells each district the total amount of money “available” for the General Fund.  Another term one hears about, especially when the Iowa Legislature is in session, is allowable growth.  This figure is used by the Iowa Department of Management in setting the state cost per pupil, as previously described.  Technically allowable growth is now known as supplementary state assistance/aid – but those of us in the business for a while still use the term allowable growth … :-).

Once each district knows the total amount of revenue it can raise, the state then goes through a process of figuring the total amount of property tax revenue and total amount of state aid.  Here is a basic breakdown of that process.

  • Uniform Property Tax Levy:  The Department of Management multiplies $5.40 per $1000 of taxable valuation of the entire district.  This figure is used throughout the remainder of the process.  Please note that the Uniform Property Tax Levy rate is the same regardless of the district ($5.40 per $1000 taxable valuation); what is different is the total taxable valuation for each district.  Simply stated, districts that are property-rich generate a lot more money than those that don’t have as much taxable valuation.
  • State Aid:  Once the total amount of property tax revenue for a district is known from the Uniform Property Tax Levy, the state then multiplies 87.5% by the total operating budget.  The total amount of money from the Uniform Property Tax Levy is then subtracted from this figure.  That number then is the amount of state aid the district will receive.  The system is the same for each district in Iowa, but the amount of state aid is different for each district because the total amount of revenue raised through the Uniform Property Tax Levy varies.
  • Additional State Aid:  Once the total amount of revenue from the Uniform Tax Levy and total amount of state are known, the state is supposed to step in and pick up the difference with state aid.  Previously local districts would levy property tax for the remaining 12.5% of their maximum budget (remember the budget is only funded at 87.5% of the maximum through the Uniform Property Tax Levy and state aid).
  • Local Property Tax Levy Rate:  Once the process described above is completed, districts figure the local tax levy needed to generate the total amount of money for the school budget.  Again, the tax rate is multiplied by the taxable valuation.  Individual district property tax rates vary greatly.

The bottom line is school budgets are primarily funded through local property tax and state aid.  We both pay property taxes and are fully supportive of not paying more property taxes than necessary to run a high quality educational system. However we also know that property taxes are a critical piece of school budgets and don’t want to shortchange the education of our students.  We want the local tax levy to be fair to constituents and yet provide the resources necessary to prepare our students for a rapidly changing world.

Anonymous …

Good morning – what an exceptional day!  The fall is my favorite time of the year – school starting, trees turning color, beans and corn maturing – just awesome!

I wanted to address a pet peeve of mine – both here at Interstate 35 and throughout my 35+ years in education – the unsigned, anonymous letter that magically shows up.  Generally speaking I’m ornery enough if an unsigned letter shows up I may not even read it.  It galls me someone doesn’t have the intestinal fortitude to sign his/her name – I have never been a difficult person to visit with and always respond quickly and tactfully – even if I don’t agree.  I know some over the years have said “fear of retribution” leads to these anonymous letters – perhaps that has happened but I can guarantee you it has never happened with me and never will – in fact if a concern is expressed my experience indicates the opposite is true – I bend over backwards to make sure fairness is the norm.  Yep – you can probably tell this stuff irritates me to the point I believe an anonymous letter is a gutless act.  That last statement may irritate some folks but I have always been open and honest so take it as an expression of honesty as I believe every word.

The shame is sometimes information in these anonymous letters has validity and should be explained – but there is no one for me to contact and visit with since there is no name on the letter.  That just seems silly to me … For instance, what prompted this posting is an anonymous letter received this morning haranguing the school about no school on Friday of Homecoming and late start Wednesdays built into the calendar – both very fair concerns that should be openly addressed.  However now I’m relegated to answering via this blog post instead of having an adult conversation … so here are the short answers and my hope the person who took the time to write the letter but not the time to sign his/her name reads this …

  • The master calendar is usually approved early spring – before we get the district football schedule (districts change every two years with home/away schedules alternating the two years of the district and we have no control on the date the schedule is released).  Although I wasn’t here, the calendar was built with a professional development day on Friday, September 26 because that is where it made sense with what is planned for professional development.  Later we received the football schedule with two home games the first two weeks of the season, another home game on September 26, then a fourth home game on October 27.  Having Homecoming the first two weeks of the season didn’t seem reasonable, and the last home game is a time to honor graduating seniors, e.g., Senior Night.  That left the only option for Homecoming as the week of September 22 – and no school on Friday, September 26.  Is this optimal and what we would choose to do with different circumstances – absolutely not.  Is this the most palatable of available solutions – we believe it is as changing a non-school date in the master school calendar wreaks havoc on parents with childcare needs/plans.  You may or may not agree with this logic and that’s perfectly okay – but know there was logic and common sense used in arriving at a decision where good options were limited.
  • The second point was why don’t we have early dismissals on Wednesdays instead of late starts – I wasn’t here so not sure of the logic or process used in arriving at late starts in this year’s I-35 school calendar.  I know from experience in a previous district the logic for late starts is there is less interference with all the afterschool activities, e.g., parents having to get kids back to activities after being released early from school.  Simply put, there are less schedule conflicts with a late start than an early dismissal.  Were parents involved in this discussion – I have absolutely no idea.  However, here’s what we will do in preparation for the 2015-2016 school calendar – we will internally assess the success of the late starts AND survey/ask parents how late starts worked for them compared to early dismissals.  We want to work together for the benefit of our students’ education – that is not a promise a change will be made nor is it a promise the decisions will be made by parents.  It is a promise that parent input will be asked for and considered in developing the 2015-2016 master school calendar.

Finally, if you are a person who insists on anonymity – keep the snide comments to yourself as I have a lot of things to do and taking time to read “junior highish” comments is not one of them.

I told you I would be honest and transparent as that is all I know and that is how an organizational should operate – how am I doing?

School Finance – Part I

There is a lot of fun, interesting things to write about on a blog … school finance is not one of them :-)!   However school finance is “a bit unique and weird” (my terms) so think it important our constituents have accurate, straightforward information about all things, and especially school finance.  It isn’t likely everyone will be an expert in school finance nor is that necessary.  However a basic understanding of the various funds within a school budget is important.  Part 2 will get beyond a listing of funds and get into some of the details on how schools are actually funded.

Within a school budget there are multiple funds; some of the funds are categorical, e.g., can only be used for certain things, while others have local discretion on their use.  Here is a listing and condensed description of various school funds.

  • General Fund:  This fund pays most of the bills for the district, e.g., salaries, benefits, supplies, etc.  You’ll also see the General Fund referred to as the Operating Fund/Budget.  Funding for the General Fund comes from a combination of local property taxes and state aid.  The state uses a formula to dictate the total amount of property tax and state aid. 
  • Physical Plant and Equipment Fund/Levy:  There are two types of Physical Plant and Equipment Levies/Funds (PPEL):  Board-Approved PPEL (maximum of $.33 per $1000 of taxable property valuation) and the Voter-Approved PPEL (approved with a simple majority of voting constituents, not to exceed $1.34 per $1000 of taxable property valuation).  PPEL funds can only be used for the physical structures and equipment of a school, as well as technology (with some restrictions).   The decision to have either of the PPEL funds is decided locally by individual districts.  Similar to the PPEL funds is SAVE (Secure an Advanced Vision for Education) – basically known as the state penny.  The state collects one cent of sales tax designated for school infrastructure, then uses a formula to figure disbursement to each individual school district, e.g., amount is dictated by the state.  I mention SAVE in the same heading as PPEL as SAVE may only be used for the same purposes as PPEL.
  • Public Education and Recreation Fund:  This fund must be approved by the voters, is funded through local property taxes, and can only be used for playgrounds and community education.  Truthfully I don’t know of any districts currently using PERL.
  • Management Fund:  This fund is used to pay costs associated with liability insurance, early retirement incentives, workers compensation, unemployment, etc., and can only be used for specified purposes.  The Management Fund is funded solely through local property taxes.
  • Student Activity Fund:  The accounts making up the Student Activity Fund are usually “flow through” for student programs, e.g., FFA, Prom, Basketball, Football, etc.  Funding for Student Activity accounts comes from gate receipts, fundraising, etc., and no taxes are levied for this fund.
  • Capital Projects Fund:  This fund is used only when a building project is undertaken within a district that will be paid for by bonds.  It’s actually where bond money is deposited until such time as building project payments are made.
  • Debt Service Fund:  When a district passes a bond issue to build, money from the Capital Projects Fund is transferred into the Debt Service Fund in order to actually pay back the borrowed money/bond.
  • Proprietary Funds:  These funds account for operations within the school that are financed and operated in a manner similar to private business enterprises.  The concept behind proprietary funds is that they basically pay for themselves.  A primary example of a proprietary fund is the School Nutrition Fund (Hot Lunch/Breakfast).

Again, this listing and explanation of funds is simply to introduce everyone to the funds so that you’ll understand the basics when you see/hear/read about school finance, e.g., common language.

The reality about school finance is that local districts have discretion over some things while the state dictates many other things.  The area of most local control comes in the General Fund.   As a matter of equity, the state sets financial parameters for the General Fund but the local district has control of how most General Fund dollars are spent.  With that said, since salaries and benefits are paid from the General Fund, there really is limited local discretion; approximately 80% of the General Fund is spent on salaries and benefits in most districts.   Most of the other funds do not have much flexibility in use or local control.

The real “meat and potatoes” of understanding school finance revolves around how schools are funded – visit again as that will be Part 2 of this series!

Very interesting …

A hearty thanks to our secondary instrumental music teacher Brian Martin for sharing the following article – “Study: Music Education Could Help Close The Achievement Gap Between Poor And Affluent Students.”  It is very interesting and worth your time to read …

Reading is such a critically important skill for all areas of learning – it is worth our efforts to reach and teach kids any and all ways possible.  Perhaps I’m preaching to the choir, but reading to your kids at home and giving them easy access to developmentally appropriate reading materials still is one of the most important things we can do to help our kids improve their learning.



Professional Learning Communities

Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) have been around for quite some time in some form or another – and PLCs all have some commonalities but there are some stark differences as well.  I’ve discovered at I-35 that PLCs were studied in the past but really not implemented,  My experience with PLCs has involved the work of Daniel Venables from the Center for Authentic PLCs (  While at East Sac County we had Daniel come and provide training for our PLC Facilitators – volunteer teachers from all school levels.  Last year we implemented authentic PLCs – I emphasize authentic intentionally as this is the critical piece of what PLCs really should be.  Because of our experience and success of PLCs at East Sac County, I contacted Daniel this summer and together we arranged a Grapple One Institute for training volunteer PLC Facilitator teachers from Interstate 35; this training occurred August 4-6.

I’m sure other schools are doing different things but here is what PLCs at Interstate 35 CSD are all about; there are three primary goals:

  1. Collaboratively review teacher and student work
  2. Develop common formative assessments
  3. Understand and analyze data in framing instruction

Although somewhat “jargonish” (you know us educators – we talk our own language), the only focus of authentic PLCs is on improved instruction and student learning – our initial focus is on item 1.  We believe, and a plethora of research and literature supports, teachers working collaboratively together to improve instruction will positively impact student learning.  Through our training at the Grapple One Institute, Facilitators learned various techniques and protocols to guide this process; feedback from the Facilitators has been incredibly positive.  For many, this is the first time there really is structured time for teachers to dialogue and process their work with trusted colleagues with a complete focus on helping kids to learn better.  The reality is authentic PLCs, when done correctly, will change/improve the culture of our school – and we fully intend to do our authentic PLCs appropriately.

We organized all our teaching staff into authentic PLC groupings and have now introduced authentic PLCs to all.  Thus far our teachers are doing incredibly well in learning, understanding, and embracing a “different way to do business.”  I believe in the authentic PLC process because I’ve seen it work and am WAY excited about where we are with the process and where we’re going!

Our PLCs are meeting for an hour two-three weeks each month during the late start Wednesdays.  This time is powerful and will reap many positives over the coming months and years.  We will periodically share updates on what we’re doing with authentic PLCs and how this work is positively changing Interstate 35 Community School District.