DES MOINES — New teachers and other critical staff are being added in rural Iowa schools thanks in part to more than $30 million in new state funding designed to help districts with outsized transportation costs.
In the second year with the new funding, rural Iowa districts largely say the program has been implemented as designed and is helping as intended.
“It’s had a positive impact and helps us transport kids and keep them safe,” said Steve Doser, spokesman for the College Community School district, where school buses travel 680,000 miles per year across the district’s 137 square miles in Linn, Johnson and Benton counties. “Especially with our mileage — it helps rural districts out a lot.”
The College Community district has received an additional $292,000, according to data compiled by the state’s nonpartisan fiscal analysis agency.
State lawmakers in recent years addressed an issue that had been percolating for much longer: many Iowa school districts have grown dramatically in geographical size and thus are spending a significant portion of their general fund budget on transportation. That meant districts like College Community, Olin and Western Dubuque, compared to other districts, were spending more on transportation, leaving less funding for staff and classroom resources. Advocates for rural schools spent years pressing lawmakers to address the inequity.
The first step was taken in 2018 with the approval of a one-time shot of $11.2 million, designed to help the districts with the highest transportation costs per pupil.
Step 2 came in 2019, when lawmakers added another $19 million and also made the payment a permanent piece of the K-12 public education budget.
“This is really making a difference in how much (districts) can budget and how much money they can put into the classroom,” said Emily Piper, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association of School Boards.
The Davis County district has prioritized early childhood literacy programs, added additional staff in pre-K through first grade, and invested in career pathway programs. That district has received nearly $422,000 in transportation inequity funding. The district spends an average of $752 per pupil on transportation, nearly double the state average of $381 per pupil.
The Central Lee district has hired a new math teacher, two reading instructors and a coordinator for at-risk students. The district has received more than $357,000 in transportation inequity funding.
The North Fayette district has been able to hire two additional staff members even though the district’s general state funding has not increased because the district’s enrollment is down. The district has received roughly $222,000 in transportation inequity funding.
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“Those are things that districts weren’t spending money on,” said Margaret Buckton, a lobbyist for the advocacy organization Rural School Advocates of Iowa.
According to the data for the most recent fiscal year, Olin spends the most per pupil in the state on transportation: nearly $1,200. The state average is $381 and the lowest is West Burlington at $19.
Olin’s per-pupil average may be inflated for that fiscal year, however. The district’s transportation director said the purchase of two buses significantly increased spending for just that year.
The Corning school district, in southwest Iowa, had the second-highest per-pupil transportation spending that year at roughly $942.
Three more districts spend more than $900 per pupil on transportation: Corning, Adair-Casey and Delwood. Those four highest-spending districts received an average of $167,000 in state transportation equity funding during the fiscal year, according to the data.
Those extra dollars have helped ease stress on other parts of the rural districts’ budgets, Doser said. The College Community district offers transportation to all of its 5,800 students, and about 4,200 students ride the bus regularly.
“It does free up more in the general fund,” he said. “It’s less tension.”
Advocates said they hope legislators take one more step on the transportation equity funding during the 2020 session and add an additional funding bump that would help get all districts to the state average. They estimated it would take an additional $7 to $10 million.
“Everybody has a transportation cost and that does take away from money in the classroom,” Piper said. “The Legislature wanted to focus on getting everyone to the statewide average.”
Those advocates said once the transportation funding is fully addressed their hope is lawmakers can turn their attention to other issues with the state’s school funding formula, including disparities in how much districts are allowed to spend per pupil. Buckton said, for example, unlike many other states Iowa does not have funding specifically for students in poverty, even though districts across the state have seen a significant increase in the number of students on free and reduced lunches.
Meantime, districts are making the most of their newfound state funding boost, which was the result of years of advocacy and legislative work.
“The rural schools have been talking about transportation for years and years. I think we had 12 years in a row that bills were introduced and never got out of a committee,” Buckton said. “It’s a reminder to advocates to be patient with democracy, but don’t give up. You have to keep telling the story of why it’s important.”