Update: at 11:10 p.m. Monday the House passed 55-40 to approve the 1.1% allowable growth after a 5-hour debate.
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – For the first time in many years, local school district taxpayers may have to help offset a Republican-ushered 1.1% growth allowance for local school districts.
At Monday’s Fort Madison Community School District Board of Directors workshop, district Business Manager Sandy Elmore showed board members what the new proposed 1.1 percent growth allowance will do to the current budget, a budget which just last week was set at 2 percent after the governor signed a bill into law that was supposed to protect K-12 funding.
Just to stay at status quo, the district tax levy will be set at 13.94/$1000 of assessed valuation, a 67-cent increase over the 2016-2017 budget. The increase in levy will amount to slightly more than $450,000 to a total property tax revenue of roughly $8.1 million to be coupled with state aid to fund the district in 2017-2018.
“At the status quo, we’re gonna have to make some cuts,” Elmore said.
Elmore said even though the district staff works daily to find efficiencies in the budget and makes cuts there regularly, maintaining current funding levels in light of recent measures at the Iowa legislature to push the 1.1 percent growth, will require the increase coupled with another option, an Instructional Support Levy.
“It’s been a loooong time since we had one,” Elmore told the board. “We passed it (the resolution) and we got petitioned.”
Board President Timm Lamb asked if any of the board members had objections to going forward with preparing the budget with the ISL and no one did.
Elmore said she would prepare the resolution for the board to approve adding it to the budget. However she said it would have to be on the board’s next regular meeting so she could get it publicized and public hearings could be set. A petition to have the ISL removed would require 148 signatures, which reflects 30% of the voters at the last regular school board election. After the public hearing, 28 days is allowed to petition.
According to Elmore, a proposed ISL of 3 percent would generate $442,000 additional for the district and would bring the rate to $14.44/$1,000 assessed. The maximum ISL can be 10% of the current levy and is capped at five years. She also suggested a Cash Reserve Levy addition of $100,000 would increase the levy 0.17/1,000 assessed. The CRL can be done in increments of $100,000 with each increment bumping the levy by 17 cents per $1,000.
Lamb said an effort to implement an ISL in a year where the school district will be asking the community to vote on building a new elementary school again in September and where the Holy Trinity Catholic system is looking for $6M to build a new elementary school, is a scary proposition.
“I think it’s a fear just because general perception in the public is that ‘you’re gonna do this and you’re gonna do that’ because they remember we didn’t pass the bond for the junior high and then we used the sales tax to build it and they just said we did what we wanted,” Lamb said.
Board member Tim Wondra said it’s an ugly scenario of passing the buck.
“Federal legislators make cuts and they pass it down to the state, and the state passes it down to the local boards and then your commissioners, supervisors and board members are the ones that have to raise the property taxes.”
Lamb reiterated that even with the ISL the district will still have one of the lowest tax rates in the state and most of the schools already have an ISL in place.
“Even if we do this we’re still gonna be one of the lowest, and all these districts are going to be in the same boat so theirs will go up too,” Lamb said.
“That’s what people don’t understand. You look at what we’ve been doing with the money, we’ve done a pretty good job handling our money and still maintaining programming.”
Board member Dianne Hope said she had real concerns about misconceptions and proper communication with the district.
“I’m very concerned about a misconception that could be out there, that the school bond didn’t pass and school board raises taxes. That ‘they’re-gonna-do-what-they-want’ mentality even though we’re talking about apples and oranges and apricots. We have to be very clear what we’re doing,” Hope said. “We’re asking to increase our taxes to our constituents and then we’re going to come back and ask for more. We’re going to have to partner with the media and make sure we have a very accurate message.”
Elmore said no money generated by the ISL or the CRL can be used for construction.
“1.1% is not enough. It’s not enough and it pushes the burden onto the taxpayer,” Elmore said.
Lamb said even with the ISL and potentially the CRL, the district will still be lower than almost all the other school districts in the area.
“Our gloves are basically going to have to come off and we’re gonna have to go out there and tell people this is happening. We can’t just take status quo.”
Superintendent Erin Slater said the district was planning on 2 percent after the Governor signed into law a budget that held K-12 funding, but now Republicans are moving toward the 1.1%.
“It’s a lower growth than we were hoping for. It puts an additional burden and makes us be creative with the budget. It’s definitely a challenge,” she said.
“Looking globally, we find our students have greater needs than ever before – increasing poverty and mental health needs, but expectations keep increasing. So more mandates come down but they don’t have the funding to implement those mandates.”
She said in conversations on the state capitol last week, there was some talk about extending the sunset on the 1-cent sales tax program for another 20 years. Slater said that could create opportunities, but those are just in the conversation stage, whereas the allowable growth is in front of legislators now.
In a newsletter released last week by State Rep. Jerry Kearns (D-Keokuk), Kearns said this is the lowest rate in the past six years.
“Republican leaders in the House and Senate are fast tracking their plan for another historic low increase in basic funding for public schools next year. The level of funding proposed at 1.1% next year is the lowest amount in six years. In fact, seven of the last eight years have been the lowest funding levels in the history of the school aid formula,” Kearns wrote.
“Last week, Iowa superintendents said there are severe consequences of inadequate public school funding again next year. The school leaders said they will be forced to raise class sizes, cut teachers, and reduce opportunities for students. They also said underfunding schools again next year would force them to delay purchases for books or classroom materials (65%); delay new technology (24%); and cut back on literacy programs (27%).”