School funding still unclear after legislators miss self-imposed deadline

Rear view of students sitting with hands raised in classroom
State lawmakers have failed to meet a self-imposed deadline for education funding, leaving Iowa school boards in the dark as they prepare their 2020-21 budgets. (Photo by Getty Images)

It’s been nearly two weeks since the Iowa Legislature missed a deadline requiring it to pass a budget for school funding, and lawmakers say they still don’t know when they’ll debate the issue again.

A self-imposed law requires legislators to approve a school-funding formula within 30 days of the session’s beginning. The intent is to let school boards know how much new state money they’ll be receiving as they prepare their budgets for the next school year.

There are no consequences to missing the deadline, however, and in recent years, the Legislature has repeatedly failed to meet the requirement.

Education funding was the first issue both the House and Senate debated this session. A bill in the House is proposing a 2.5% increase in supplemental state aid, which is a major funding source schools can use on everything from teacher salaries to class programming. While the House’s proposal is in line with the governor’s proposal, the Senate forwarded a bill proposing a lesser increase, 2.1%, instead.

But with school districts trying to evaluate their budgetary needs for next year, the Senate has offered to compromise and meet the House in the middle with a 2.3% supplemental state aid increase, said Senate education committee chair Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton.

Sen. Amy Sinclair. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Senate)

“It’s easy to fixate on that SSA number,” Sinclair said. “We are trying to fund the problems and priorities the folks in education are bringing to us.”

While the Senate’s supplemental state aid is lower than the governor’s recommendation, Sinclair said it evens out because of education line items the chamber is passing, such as a bill to mitigate violence in classrooms and a bill to provide funding for online learning.

But House Speaker Pat Grassley said his caucus is trying to provide funding for those same programs while also honoring Reynolds’ recommendation.

He said he is in discussion with the Senate and Reynolds to try and come to an agreement.

In total, Iowa House leaders say they are recommending more than $107 million in increased education funding, while Iowa Senate leaders say they are proposing a $91.7 million increase. Reynolds recommended a package of around $101 million.

Grassley said the House may need to make some adjustments to get its budget proposal closer to Reynolds’ amount.

Rep. Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford. (Photo courtesy of Iowa House)

“We think while we may have to make adjustments from our starting point, it still puts us in a position and in line with what the original proposal was,” Grassley said. “I think the governor had pretty good feedback as far as the overall number.”

House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Dolecheck, R-Mount Ayr, said he’s concerned schools don’t have their budget numbers yet, but added they do have a range to work with.

“They probably know the ceiling and they probably know the floor,” Dolecheck said.

Grassley said a date has not been set for bringing education funding back to the floor for a debate and a vote.