Iowa school districts to lawmakers: Don’t penalize us for COVID-19 enrollment losses

By: - January 8, 2021 2:50 pm

Students study in a classroom. (Photo by Getty Images)

Education advocates are calling on the Iowa Legislature to hold school districts that lost enrollment due to COVID-19 financially harmless.

Iowa’s public schools experienced a 1.2% reduction in enrollment, totaling nearly 6,000 students in fall 2020 as families chose to send their kids to private school or keep them at home instead.

But the state’s school funding model, which gives dollars per pupil, leaves school officials wondering how the Legislature plans on helping them with the potential financial decline.

About 66% of Iowa schools experienced enrollment drops, including in some unexpected locations such as Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Iowa City, Council Bluffs, Waterloo, Sioux City, Dubuque, Burlington and West Des Moines, according to the Iowa Department of Education.

Rural school districts have historically struggled with declining student populations, but even urban districts have seen reduced enrollment. West Des Moines, which is one of the state’s largest school districts, lost more than 170 students in comparison to the previous year.

In December, the West Des Moines district announced it would face $2.5 million to $3.5 million in reductions for the 2021-22 school year.

But if the Legislature allows the state’s budget guarantee to help districts with declining enrollment, schools will be better off in the long term, said Emily Piper, lobbyist for the Iowa Association of School Boards.

The budget guarantee is a funding mechanism that uses property taxes to aid schools when supplemental state aid doesn’t keep up with decreased enrollment.

If a district’s enrollment goes down and it loses more percentage wise than they gain in state cost per-pupil, the budget guarantee kicks in and lets districts use the previous year’s enrollment plus 1%.

Piper said the Iowa Association of School Boards wants the Legislature to provide $90 million in new funding for schools and allow the budget guarantee mechanism to work. 

Last year, Iowa schools received a 2.3% increase in Supplemental State Aid, around $85.6 million and $8.3 million in budget guarantee funds.

The Iowa State Education Association is requesting a minimum of $100 million in new money along with the budget guarantee.

“The budget guarantee is not an anomaly,” Piper said. “The fact that it is triggered is not an anomaly.”

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said he is proposing using the enrollment numbers for fall 2019 and allow school districts to decide if they want to use student numbers from 2019 or 2020.

More school districts would rely on state aid rather than property taxes using that funding model, Quirmbach said.

“It’s simple to explain, it’s easy to calculate, it’s straightforward,” Quirmbach said.

But in the long term, Piper said the school boards believe basing funding off previous enrollment will hurt districts that have seen a trendline student decline. If the Legislature gives $90 million in new money, using previous enrollment will lower the SSA rate, which could have future implications.

But Quirmbach said if student enrollment balances out next year, he is unsure if the Republican-dominated Legislature would continue to support a higher SSA rate.

“Doing things my way would have more state aid and a lot fewer districts on budget guarantee,” Quirmbach said.

Gov. Kim Reynolds said Thursday she is dedicating $345 million from the second round of CARES Act funding to help K-12 schools who incurred expenses due to COVID-19. She did not pledge additional state aid, however.

House Education Chair Dustin Hite, R-New Sharon, said he is unsure which funding model Republican legislators prefer for schools, but he said the enrollment drop is an issue they’re considering.

Hite said he does not know what amount of supplemental state aid he’s prepared to propose yet.

One of the areas he is planning on examining this session is assisting schools that remained open for in-person learning. Those schools incurred additional expenses and he said the committee may examine using one-time money to help with those expenses.

Another priority includes examining school choice and assisting college students who may have felt they did not receive the education they paid for last year.

“We’re going to see what we can do for schools,” Hite said.

The Iowa Legislature convenes Jan. 11.

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