School Funding

Earlier this year I blogged two times about school finance – not the most exciting topic but obviously important nonetheless.  Today let’s talk a bit further about what Governor Branstad is proposing for 2015-2016 school funding.  In no particular order here are the facts:

  • Iowa law mandates the Iowa Legislature set the amount of school funding for the following year within 30 days after the Governor presents his/her budget.  This law was enacted to make sure schools had adequate time to develop reasonable budgets … and make any necessary adjustments.
  • For whatever reason, the 2014 Iowa Legislature opted to not follow the law and refused to set school funding for 2015-2016 … BTW, this is a regular occurrence – the irony of a legislative body with the primary function of making laws but choosing to just ignore a law instead of changing it just blows my mind … unbelievable in my mind … What happens to us non-legislators if we blatantly choose to break a law?
  • School budgets must be certified in April for the following year … most preparation of these budgets starts in January
  • Since we don’t know what our revenue per student will be for 2015-2016 it is “challenging” to develop a realistic budget
  • We also start negotiations with certified and classified staff about this time of the year – and again have no idea what our revenue will be for next year
  • Although a major oversimplification, funding for the General Fund (see other posts on School Finance) is basically a simple math equation:  # of students x funding per pupil = total General Fund revenue
  • Did you know …
    • Iowa ranks 35th in the nation in per pupil funding … we are $1,612 below the national average in per pupil funding
    • Iowa ranks 9th in the nation in reserve funds on hand (cash in the bank)
    • Iowa has the 12th highest growth rate in gross domestic product
    • Iowa ranks 9th in growth of per capita personal income nationwide?
  • When we begin the budgeting process, we estimate a 3-3.5% increase in fixed costs, e.g., fuel costs, energy costs, salary/benefit costs, etc.

Okay, I could go on quite some time with factual data … so what’s the point?  The point is Governor Branstad recently recommended a 1.25% increase in school funding per pupil for next year, and 2.45% for the following year.  One of the reasons given is these are tough times and we need to tighten our belt (a paraphrase).  Hmm … none of the factual data supports that assertion.

It gets “better” … we attended a legislative forum last night and were told that over the past 12 years schools in Iowa have averaged over a 4.5+% average growth in funding each year.  This would be an example of what I call “slippery math” … if you take the total amount of money given to schools and divide by the number of years then it would be a true statement.  What is SO INTENTIONALLY MISLEADING about the statement however is the figure includes when two years ago the state reduced property taxes and replaced a portion of them with state aid – they included this in their figures even though it was NOT new money, the source of the money was just different.  They also included what is known as categorical funding – categorical funding can only be used for things within specific “categories” … it CANNOT be used for other general fund purposes like buying books, technology, paying utility bills, etc.  The reality is that Iowa schools have received closer to an average 2% yearly increase over the past 12 years (I’m working on the exact number).  Frankly I do not know of any schools who haven’t cut any discretionary programs et al. over the years – contrary to what some legislators believe because they’re looking at flawed information, there is no low hanging fruit left within schools to magically pluck and reduce costs because we’ve been dealing with this “mess” for a long time.

We profess to put education in Iowa as a major priority – the highest priority is verbiage often used.  However, funding has not supported that notion.  I can’t speak for others, but I fully understand the demands of the state budget and also believe roads/bridges are important, public safety is important, etc. … and I also understand and support that budgets must be balanced.  Consequently it just comes down to priorities … I ask you, what is more important than the education of our children?

The bottom line is the only way we as a school can continue to balance our budget (required by law – and we choose to follow the law) is to cut programs and cut staff.  The saddest thing when this happens – and it will happen in my opinion with what the Governor is attempting to do – is we lessen opportunities for our kids, our students.

You may agree or disagree with me – that’s the beauty of this country.  If you agree with the case I’ve presented, please take time to contact your state legislator and/or the Governor’s office and tell them to adequately fund public education as it is WAY TOO IMPORTANT TO SIT OUT ON THE SIDELINES.  If you need addresses, emails, or phone numbers, shoot me an email at kfiene@i-35,k12.ia.us and I’ll provide you with the information you need.

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Geez …

Thought it might be appropriate to review how we go about making decisions regarding whether the school is on time, starting late, getting out early, or canceled … truthfully not one my favorite job responsibilities!

First, we try to operate with a simple philosophy – keeping our students and staff safe.  Although easy enough to articulate, this philosophy isn’t all that simple to implement – and I’m fully aware there is a lot of interpretation that goes with this philosophy – and that opinions abound when a decision is actually made.

Second, we utilize multiple sources in checking the weather:

Third, our Transportation Director and I both get out and drive various roads within our district; we meet and visit about what we’re finding and seeing.  Sometimes we may actually call some patrons who live in particularly troublesome travel areas.

Fourth, area Superintendents (and/or Transportation Directors) visit about conditions, information, and possible plans.  Ultimately each district makes their own decision but a lot of collaboration goes on behind the scenes before a decision is made.

Sometimes all these steps occur during the day and evening; if it’s a morning decision we start with these steps at about 4:00 am.  If school is to be delayed in the morning or even canceled, we really need to make that decision no later than 6:00 am, e.g., before we’re starting to prepare school breakfast and before bus drivers are on the road coming to work.

Once we’ve looked at as much data as possible/available, visited with other districts, etc., we weigh our options (usually the Transportation Director and me).  From there ultimately I make the decision and we begin the notification process, e.g., bus drivers, staff, television, website, text notifications, etc.

I would love to tell you the process used in making these decisions is perfectly scientific and there is some magic formula to follow – but that just isn’t the case.  We try to use data as much as possible but weather is not an exact science – so ultimately we go back to the overall philosophy described above.  If I’m going to make an error in this decision-making process, I want to error on the side of student and staff safety.

As previously mentioned this is not my favorite part of my job … but we do the best we can!