Letter to the Editor

Greetings everyone,

Things got “a bit busy” at the end of the year so I took a hiatus from posting to this blog.  I’ll attempt to do better in regularly updating …

As you’re likely aware, the 2015 legislative session in Iowa was long, contentious … and more than a little frustrating.  To put things in perspective, schools were required by law to certify their budgets for FY 16 (officially began on July 1, 2015) no later than April 15, 2015 … yet the legislature did not finish their work and let us know what revenue we would have until June.  To make a challenging situation even more challenging, last week the governor used his line item veto to strike out one-time funding for schools agreed to by both the House (Republican majority) and the Senate (Democratic majority).  For Interstate 35 Community School District, this means receiving $99,858 less than the legislature agreed to provide.

I’ve now been in education as a teacher, coach, principal, professor, and superintendent for 36+ years – and this is the most frustrating situation I’ve dealt with over these years.  Education is sometimes vilified as always wanting more money – of course we want more money as additional funding allows us to do more for our students – and the only thing important in schools is what we’re doing for our kids.  I do not and will not apologize for wanting what is best for our kids.

In any case, I am also concerned with the direction our great state seems to be heading regarding leadership; consequently I authored a letter to the editor and sent it to the Des Moines Register earlier this week.  Because it is much longer than their recommended 200 words, I’m not optimistic it will be published so I’m going to share it here.  Please understand these are my thoughts and beliefs and I’m not representing Interstate 35 Community School District directly with my comments.  You can agree or disagree – that’s the beauty of a democracy – but take some time to reflect not only on the words but also on where we seem to be heading as a state.  To me the only word that keeps coming up is … troubling.

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When Iowa Became a Kingdom

I have now been involved in education as a teacher, coach, principal, college professor, and superintendent for 35+ years.  I have never been more disenchanted with the politics involved in educating our children.  Being a former government teacher, I always taught the legislative branch of a democracy was responsible for the making of laws; the executive branch was responsible for implementation of the laws – basically American Government 101.  A system of checks and balances was built into the system to keep one branch of government from becoming too powerful.   Perhaps I’ve been wrong all these years as it somehow appears to me Iowa has moved away from the basic tenets of democracy and actually moved toward a kingdom/monarchy.

Why would an educated, experienced veteran of education make such a statement?  Fair question – allow me to explain.  Governor Branstad recently used the line item veto to remove one-time funding for public schools of Iowa.   In his press release he basically lauded his efforts to increase “targeted growth in funding for initiatives,” as well as used the rhetoric of “My administration’s commitment to giving Iowa students a world-class education.”  All of this is just fine and dandy – and yes targeted funding through the Teacher Leadership and Compensation system has brought additional funding to the schools, albeit targeted (code word for lots of strings attached).  However, my current school district is in the last group of schools to apply for TLC funding – so we have not yet seen a dime of this targeted funding so proudly exclaimed by the governor.  Hopefully we will have our plan approved for year three – but the additional funding available for schools in years one and two of TLC implementation is lost for us and will never be recovered.  Is a student in my district worth less than a student in another district?  The answer is no – but in real dollars from the state the answer sadly is yes.

Let me take this a step further – the governor chided the legislature for not following the law in setting state supplemental assistance in a timely manner.  This is the same governor that I sat and listened to at an event the year before proudly proclaim they would not be setting state supplementary assistance for the following year even though that is what the law required.   Hmmm … one can’t have it both ways sir.

Even further into this thought process – I regularly conversed with legislators throughout the 2015 session.  I don’t remember the exact number but at least three or four legislators told me it was circulated the governor would not sign anything greater than his initial proposal of 1.25%.  Either that came from the governor or his office/staff – doesn’t really matter as it was taken as gospel by these legislators.  In any case, the Republican controlled House and the Democratic controlled Senate battled it out the entire session (and into overtime after the official session was to end) over funding for schools; the legislative process was basically crippled for all areas.  Eventually the legislative process worked and a compromise was reached – by nature a compromise doesn’t make anyone overly happy but is something done in good faith and can be lived with.  All the while the legislative session was unfolding (perhaps unraveling would be more apropos), those of us in the trenches in schools were left not having a clue about a budget for FY 16 that had to be certified by law by April 15.  By the way, those of us in the trenches chose to follow the law … seems like the right thing to do.

Although 150 legislators negotiated in good faith in arriving at the compromise, our governor opted to ignore their work and do what he wanted to do from the start – set funding at 1.25%.  He then further chastised the legislature for not setting spending for schools for FY 17 at the level he initially proposed.  In my estimation he basically threw the legislature under the bus for political cover and extolled all the things he and his administration have done for education.

I’m quite sure our founding fathers did not envision this type of behavior for our democracy – but the signs are here that Iowa, at least in public education, is operating as a kingdom where the king does what he wants.  You are certainly welcome to disagree with my assertions – but perhaps we could better fund things in this great state, including public education, if we just disbanded the legislative branch and let the governor continue operating with apparently no restrictions on his power.  Of course that is the silliest idea ever, but look at the data of what is happening … more than a little frustrating and alarming in my estimation.

Partisan politics is the death knell of civility in public service – and from my perspective it appears the king of partisanship is in the governor’s office.  I’m quite sure the founding fathers did not envision the chief executive of the state holding his party’s legislators hostage and not allowing them to think for themselves.   We have watched partisanship cripple action at the federal level and now we’re having the same thing happening in Iowa.  We are better than that … and I would ask the governor and legislators to put their political party in the background and figure a way to walk across the aisle in a civil manner and work together – for this great state and for our kids.

I would in no way minimize the contributions Governor Branstad has made to the state of Iowa over his many years of service.  However, in my estimation, he is wrong and has crossed way over the line this past legislative session.   We – especially our students – deserve better than we’re getting.   So no one believes my comments are political in nature – I register based on which primary or caucus I want to participate in – and have never voted a straight party ticket in my life.  My comments are from a genuine concern for the kids in our public schools – now and into the future.

Respectfully,

Kevin W. Fiene, Ed. D.

Current Superintendent in Iowa

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