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School Districts Face Tough Choices If State Aid Decision Delayed

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DES MOINES, Iowa Iowa schools may be forced to lay off teachers, postpone purchases, eliminate support positions and reduce curriculum offerings if Gov. Terry Branstad and state lawmakers fail to decide by March the level of increased state aid that K-12 districts will receive for next school year, according to superintendent survey responses released Monday.

Legislative Democrats pushing a 4 percent boost in K-12 base funding "allowable growth" said 179 of 206 survey respondents indicated that they need to know soon what the new state aid level will be to avoid staff cutbacks, crowded classes and harm to student achievement if they are forced to proceed with a zero growth assumption in planning their fiscal 2014 budgets that must be certified by April 15.

"That's a real concern," said Dan Smith, executive director of the School Administrators of Iowa. "

"We realize that we want our system to improve, but we've got the reality of dealing with bargaining, dealing with resources available to run the schools next year, so it's a real dilemma for school leaders and they're wanting and needing clarity on what the funding is going to be," Smith added. "The longer that it goes after that period of time, it requires making some decisions about what they can project the resources to be. If you don't know, you've got to be pretty cautious as you make those decisions."

Education committees in the Iowa House and Iowa Senate have started work of Branstad's proposed education reforms that he wants completed before the focus shifts to money issues, but Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the reform and funding issues should move on parallel tracks so schools can plan for the 2013-14 school year. To that end, he said, the Senate controlled by Democrats will take up a 4 percent allowable growth bill on Wednesday and send it to the House in hopes majority Republicans there will pass it and send it to the governor's desk.

"We have to pass allowable growth right now," said Quirmbach, using the survey results as evidence that additional delay in local school funding would hurt student achievement that the proposed reforms aim to bolster. "You've got to keep the lights on in the schools, you've got to buy the pencils, order the textbooks, put gas in the school bus and pay the teachers. We need to keep our schools going even as we look forward to improve them in the future."

Rep. Ron Jorgensen, R-Sioux City, chairman of the House Education Committee, said that as a former school board member for six years he understands the angst that local districts must be feeling as they approach their budget certification deadlines. "I would be screaming and hollering just like they're doing now," he said.

But Jorgensen added that he sees no reason why lawmakers can't pass education reform by the end of February and take up the supplemental state aid issue in that time frame.

"My hope is to give it the proper hearing that it needs to have, but not delay the process if at all possible. You could analyze something to death, too. At some point in time, you just need to figure you've got enough information and make a call," Jorgensen said. "I think if we could have something to (school districts) by the end of February, that would meet their needs. That's my objective."

However, Quirmbach and Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, ranking Democratic on the House Education Committee, noted the governor's school reform proposal is a 60-page measure with a number of significant changes that need to be given full and careful consideration before they are put in the Iowa code, while the allowable growth bill is one sentence with a percentage increase.

"If our goal is world class schools, we can't shortchange our schools now and expect dramatic improvements when they are forced to lay off teachers, crowd more students into each class, and delay technology improvements that are vital to 21st Century learning," said Steckman.

In a radio interview Monday, Branstad said he wants legislators to pass the education reform package first and is optimistic it is on a fast track to meet his end of February deadline.

The governor said that just having smaller class sizes doesn't translate into higher student achievement. "Many of our small schools in Iowa don't have the achievement that some of the schools that have larger class sizes. So I think the studies show that class size in and of itself is not the total answer," he said during an Iowa Public Radio interview. "Some schools have extremely small classes because of declining enrollment, but they are not able to provide a quality program."

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