Local school leaders say proposals to increase state funding would help them maintain the status quo but wouldn’t necessarily allow for expanded services or more competitive wages.

“We believe that’s enough to, again, offset the inflationary cost of running a business of our size, a district of our size,” Stan Rheingans, superintendent of Dubuque Community Schools, said of one of the proposals being examined by Iowa lawmakers. “But we would like to start the conversation eventually about different funding or increased funding.”

Members of the Iowa Senate and House of Representatives this week passed versions of a bill to increase supplemental state aid by 2.1% or 2.5%, which would add about $91 million or $110 million to current state funding for schools, respectively. Lawmakers now are working to determine what the final amount will be.

School perspectives

Rheingans said the 2.5% increase proposed by the House would allow the district to maintain its programming and cover the cost of inflation. However, the state’s largest districts have been advocating for a 3.7% rise in supplemental state aid, the per-pupil funding mechanism for districts.

Additional funding would allow the district to create more programming for student mental health and behavior issues that schools increasingly have been addressing. It would also allow the district to look at offering more competitive wages to staff.

The district’s full-time equivalent staffing rose about 10% over the past 10 fiscal years, as enrollment fell by 2.3%. District officials have tied many of those increases to serving special education students and students from low-income backgrounds.

The average teacher salary in 2019 in Dubuque — $53,386.99 — was the lowest among the eight districts in the Urban Education Network of Iowa, a coalition of the state’s largest districts.

Rheingans said the addition of staff to address issues the school district faces diminishes officials’ ability to raise teachers’ wages, which he said is needed to help attract good educators.

“It’s a supply-and-demand issue,” he said. “If we want the best teachers, then we need to reimburse them at a rate that entices the best teachers to come here and stay here.”

Rheingans also said that if schools are expected to address rising mental health needs among students, they will need additional funding to do so.

“I think most of us agree it needs to be dealt with,” Rheingans said. “The question is who is going to have that mission and how are we going to fund that?”

Kristen Rickey, superintendent of the West Delaware County Community School District, said she appreciates the legislature’s work and the challenge that comes with building a budget.

However, she sees a 2.5% increase as a “minimum” to keep up with costs, citing recommendations from groups such as School Administrators of Iowa to raise supplemental state aid by at least 3.75%.

Rickey likewise said she would like to make teacher salaries more competitive. The average full-time teacher salary for the district was $57,917.37 in 2019.

“It takes a team, and we’d like to be able to adequately compensate those folks,” Rickey said. “And we need funding to do it.”

Rick Colpitts, superintendent of the Western Dubuque Community School District, said that rising enrollment in the district compounds the amount of state aid the district receives because the school funding formula is tied to enrollment numbers. Enrollment in the Western Dubuque district has risen by 6.6% in the past five years.

“From my perspective, as just one district, we’ve been fine,” Colpitts said. “If I look holistically across the state at the smaller districts that are not increasing in enrollment, it is not adequate for those.”

Weighing the costs

Iowa Sen. Michael Breitbach, R-Strawberry Point, noted that lawmakers also are giving schools millions more for transportation and student equity this session. They also are looking at a bill to address students with significant behavior issues that would add another $2.5 million in funding.

Breitbach said he believes the Senate’s supplemental state aid proposal is reasonable, noting that class sizes in his district are reasonably small and that other state initiatives such as extending the 1-cent sales tax and adding extra transportation funding have been a benefit to schools.

“We’re trying to give you the amount of dollars that we have available, that when we tell you we’re going to give you this many dollars, that’s the dollars you’re going to get from the state,” Breitbach said.

State Sen. Carrie Koelker, R-Dyersville, pointed to areas of student achievement as evidence that states have the funding they need to be successful.

Iowa’s high school graduation rate for the 2016-2017 school year was 91%, near the top in the nation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“Those statistics show us that we’re adequately taking care of our students in Iowa as well,” she said.

However, State Rep. Andy McKean, D-Anamosa, said additional state aid is needed to make up for previous years of low increases. Over the past several years, the average increase to schools has been around 1.7%, he said.

Additional dollars would allow schools to have smaller class sizes and more course offerings, McKean said. He also is concerned that student performance on standardized tests has been slipping. In Iowa, around 70% of students are proficient in English language arts and math, according to the state.

“It is my hope that given the state’s improved financial situation that this could be a year where we could play a little bit of catch-up and be able to provide the schools with more generous support,” he said.

State Rep. Lindsay James, D-Dubuque, characterized state aid increases in recent years as “status quo.” Last year’s supplemental state aid increase of about 2.1% equated to $600,000 in new dollars for the Dubuque school district, she said. That would not be enough to cover normal year-to-year increases in cost.

“When it comes to funding, we have to ask, where is the priority?” she said.