FOREST CITY | State legislators answered questions on issues they will face during the upcoming session that begins Jan. 8 at a recent forum in Forest City.
Topics addressed included educational funding, taxes and mental health.
The Forest City, Garner-Hayfield-Ventura, North Iowa and Lake Mills school districts invited legislators to the forum.
School superintendents, school board members and members of the public took turns asking them questions.
Lake Mills School Board Vice President Kathy Christianson asked the legislators if they would commit to determining the percentage increase in state supplemental aid to school districts within the first 30 days of the 2018 session and give as high a percentage as the budget allows.
Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, said she wants the amount set as soon as possible. She noted the decreased amount in allowable growth over the past seven years has meant cuts in school programs and increased class sizes.
Before setting the allowable growth percentage, "we have to make sure the money is there," said Rep. Tedd Gassman, R-Scarville.
He said K-12 schools got a $40 million increase during the 2017 session. Although some people think that wasn't enough, "that's not chicken feed, either," he said.
The only three states that had a bigger increase in education funding from 2008 to 2015 were Alaska, Illinois and South Dakota, according to Gassman.
Rep. Terry Baxter, R-Garner, said the Republicans have "stepped up to the plate" and kept their promises when it comes to school aid.
Beth Clouse, who has four children in Forest City Schools, asked about the possibility of giving school districts more control over how money is spent.
Steckman said it has to be frustrating when schools have "a big pot of money" but can only use it for certain things.
She noted schools are now allowed to use Physical Plant and Equipment Levy for technology, but it took a long time for that to happen.
Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, said when a school can use a certain source of money to buy buses but not to repair them, "that's ridiculous."
He said the collective bargaining changes made during the last session should help give schools more freedom in how they spend money.
Gassman said the legislature also passed a home rule law last year.
"You know how to spend that money better than we do, and you will do a good job in doing that," he told the school officials at the forum.
Baxter said he also wants to get rid of state mandates so schools can get back to basics.
"The days of doing everything but education has to end," he said.
Rep. Jane Bloomingdale, R-Northwood, said the legislature has passed a bill allowing for more flexibility.
"Our schools are not the same," she said "We can't make them cookie-cutter. That doesn't work. We all have different needs."
State Penny Tax
Lake Mills School Board President Ryan Joynt asked the legislators if they support extending the state penny sales tax for school infrastructure, which expires on Dec. 31, 2029.
Gassman said he would support extending the tax, noting there was an effort in the past to extend it to 2049.
Bloomingdale said she is a co-sponsor of a bill to extend the penny tax.
Guth said he is "moderately in favor" of extending the penny tax, noting he agrees with those who say the legislature should wait until the 2019 session to do so.
Tyler Williams, superintendent of GHV Schools, said his district has just completed a $7.2 million expansion of the high school, which was financed entirely through the penny tax.
However, he said districts who are now considering using the penny tax revenue for future building projects are being cautious because they don't know if the tax will be there after 2029.
Steckman said that's why she's in favor of a bill the House passed to eliminate the sunset altogether. She said this bill gives more security to school districts.
"I'd like to see it (the penny tax) go on indefinitely," Baxter said.
Operational sharing incentives
All the legislators said they support incentives for operational sharing between school districts.
Baxter said this gives schools the flexibility they need.
"I like the idea of having home rule and local control on some of that," he said.
Bloomingdale said every school in her district does some sort of sharing. She said rural schools don't always need a full-time teacher in some areas so sharing is ideal for them.
Guth said he would like to see sharing with community colleges.
Williams said many school superintendents in Iowa want full support rather than partial support from the state for preschool programs.
"We had better fund K-12 first before we get into that," Gassman said.
Gassman and Guth both said families have some responsibility to pay for preschool for their children.
Baxter said many families pay for childcare that has a preschool component, but a lot of families can't afford it.
In kindergarten the children who went to preschool have an advantage, according to Baxter.
"The earlier you start, the better you are for the sake of the child," he noted, noting this is especially important for language skills.
Bloomingdale said preschool is important, but money is already tight in K-12.
Steckman said the public objected strongly when the legislature tried in 2010 to cut preschool funding entirely.
She said in 4-year-old preschool children learn all about books and get much-needed interaction with other kids.
Steckman said for every dollar the state spends on preschool it gets $7 back when the children are older.
"It's a long-term investment," she said.
Equity in transportation funding
Teresa Fritz, a Lake Mills School Board member, thanked the senators for their support for a bill to solve both transportation inequity and the state cost per student inequality in the formula.
The bill is currently assigned to the House Appropriations Committee. Fritz asked the legislators if they will support it.
Baxter said a lot of school districts in Iowa's metro areas have increasing enrollment and don't have the transportation expenses rural districts have, but they still get more money from the state.
He said he's in favor of making things more equal between urban and rural districts.
Bloomingdale said by the time the Senate bill came to the House last session, they were making cuts to everything and there wasn't enough money for the bill.
She said the Cresco school district spends more than $1,000 per student for transportation, while the state average is a little more than $300.
She said all the school districts in her House district are spending more than the state average for transportation, so it would be great for them to receive more money from the state for that purpose.
Steckman said she thinks the House can find the $29 million needed to fund the bill from the Senate this session, especially since legislators will be looking at tax credits "we are allowing to balloon out of control."
When asked how the state will ensure adequate funding for schools, Guth said the legislature will be looking at tax reform, including eliminating tax credits.
He noted when it comes to cutting tax credits, people say it's a great idea, but "they all have one they want to keep."
Baxter said Iowa is already one of the highest-taxing states in the nation. If taxes are too high, businesses will go to other states such as South Dakota.
Steckman challenged Baxter's assertion that Iowa is a high-tax state. She said it is more "in the middle of the pack."
Iowa also needs to increase its tax base, according to Bloomingdale. She said legislators need to look at what's taxable and what is not when it comes to sales tax.
Bloomingdale said when it comes to tax credits, "nothing's off the table" for cuts this session.
Steckman said legislators need to look at "what these tax credits were intended to do."
The research and development tax credit, which is now up to $70 million, is being used by six large corporations even though it initially was intended for small businesses.
Gassman said "we have gotten carried away" on tax credits.
However, he said he would like to increase the deduction for business equipment because what farmers and small business owners are receiving now isn't enough.
Mental health funding
When the conversation turned to mental health funding, Steckman said, "It's just tragic what we are not doing for Iowans."
State officials need to decide mental health and education will be their top priorities, according to Steckman. She said state revenues were positive, but the money is gone because of tax credits and giveaways.
Guth said if revenue is increasing, tax credits aren't to blame. He said the problem is "we spent more than we took in."
"We want to do it all but we just don't have enough money to do it all," he said.
Gassman said the merging of the dropout and at-risk levies allows for hiring more school guidance counselors to help students with behavioral problems.
"This is a breakdown of the family. It really is," he said.
Gassman said the number of single mothers is increasing. He said he's not blaming them necessarily, "but it's a problem."
Baxter noted the state mental health region that includes North Iowa has 22 counties in it. He said there's been an effort to make it geographically smaller to allow for more localized services.
He also said local hospitals have some empty beds that can be use for mental health patients.
Baxter said he's not sure re-opening large institutions is the solution, noting the old facilities that closed were outdated and expensive to operate.
Criminal justice reform also should be part of the solution because people are going to jail because mental health beds aren't available, according to Baxter.
Bloomingdale said school administrators have told her elementary counselors are what's most needed, and operational sharing can help with that.