Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Feasible and Responsible

Last week the House released HSB 647, a bill that will extend the sunset of the SAVE (Secure an Advanced Vision for Education) to January 1, 2050. In layman's terms, SAVE is the one cent sales tax that is dedicated to school infrastructure. The current law is set to expire in 2029, which may make one wonder what the rush is, but believe me; there is urgency to extend the expiration of this valuable resource. That's because many school districts bond against future sales tax revenue. School districts are now faced with a much smaller bonding capacity due to the impending 2029 sunset of the SAVE fund. One of the biggest benefits of using revenue bonds for capital improvement projects is that they don't impact property taxes. Without the ability to complete these projects with sales tax revenue, schools will turn to general obligation bonds which are bonds paid back with property tax proceeds. 

Because of limited bonding capacities, we are already beginning to see a greater reliance on general obligation bonds, as was demonstrated by the special election that was held on February 6th, 2018. Multiple school districts all around Iowa held special elections that night to pass bond issues for school infrastructure projects. Requiring a 60% super majority for passage, all of these bond issues will be funded through property tax. Because of the high threshold for getting voter approval, it is not uncommon for the issue to be brought before voters multiple times before ultimately receiving approval to move forward. Many of the issues on the ballot during this last election had previously been brought before voters.

In Hudson we have been working hard over the last several years to upgrade and renovate our facilities. The most recent project included the early childhood wing of our elementary school and the installation of the accessible ramp on the South end of our competition gym. In December, the board approved the second phase of this project, which will include the 4th and 5th grade wing of our elementary. All of these projects are being funded using our sales tax revenue, which generates approximately $600,000 annually. So as to not stretch ourselves too thin, we are budgeting roughly $500,000 annually to complete these infrastructure projects. This strategy does not come without challenges. First, it limits the size and scope of what we are able to do. Second, it creates a situation where other important projects are delayed; and third, it makes long range strategic planning formidable because there are numerous high need projects to address, often at the same time.

So to meet our challenge, at that same December meeting the board voted to move forward with a feasibility study to evaluate our facilities, determine and prioritize our long term goals, and help us develop a strategy in which to meet these needs. The timing for this work couldn't be better because as you know our school district is preparing for enrollment growth. It is important then, that we evaluate our facilities with this bright future in mind. In the coming weeks we will be engaging multiple groups of stakeholders in this process through meetings, strategy sessions, and public hearings. I'm not certain where this process will lead us. Whatever we determine is a 'feasible plan' will undoubtedly be executed in a responsible manner.

In the interim, here's how you can help. We have engaged with Invision Architecture to lead our feasibility study. With a local connection, we have had a longstanding positive relationship with this firm and have worked together on multiple projects. The most recent being the work done this past summer. In preparation for our study we would like to gather some baseline information to help identify our needs and priorities. If you would be so kind as to complete this brief survey that will only be open until February 20th we would b grateful. You can access the survey here

For certain, this makes the extension of the SAVE incredibly important for the Hudson Community School District. 

My Remarks in Opposition to HSB651 (Educational Savings Accounts)

This morning I had the proud honor to stand up in defense of Iowa public schools by speaking in front of the House Subcommittee for Education. The subject of this meeting was to discuss HSB 651, a proposal to introduce a voucher system in Iowa; whereas private schools would have access to public funds for tuition and other education related expenses. At a time when our public schools have been historically underfunded, it is inconceivable and highly inappropriate to advance a bill that undoubtedly will funnel even more funds away from our public schools, the backbone of our democracy. Although my testimony in front of the subcommittee was time limited, I am grateful to be given the opportunity to speak. The full text of my prepared statement is included below.

To begin, I would first like to express my gratitude for the work of this committee. I do believe that each of your care deeply about the young people in our state and want for them to have the very best educational experience they can. For certain, there have been policy changes during this 87th General Assembly that will shape the educational landscape of our state for generations to come. Further, I am thankful that I have the opportunity to contribute to this conversation here today, and for the good fortune I have to engage with Representative Rogers, who not only chairs this committee, but is my locally elected Representative. Mr. Rogers and I speak regularly, and I am pleased to be one that he seeks input from on a consistent basis. I ask you to please hear my input today and respectfully request that you reject HSB 651 in its entirety.

Notwithstanding the draconian financial implications for Iowa public schools outlined in Division II, section 3; this proposal is deeply flawed. For certain, this bill is incompatible with other legislative priorities that are being debated by this body. As one example, we saw yesterday a productive discussion about transportation and district cost per pupil inequities in our educational system. We witnessed a dialogue that, by its very nature, was designed to improve the inequities in our public school system. Today, I submit to you HSB 651 is the antithesis of those efforts.

Take for example Division II, subsection 3(a-g). It is in this section we learn the sum of the proposed savings grant is ninety percent minus the local property tax portion of the cost per pupil for public school students, plus 90% of the supplemental amount for each category. Under current open enrollment laws, the local (receiving) public school district is not eligible to receive the supplemental amount for each category. This undoubtedly creates an inequity. For certain, the aforementioned scenario will likely propagate a condition where the student receiving the Educational Saving Account will generate more revenue than the open enrollment student.

In the same division, subsection 8(a) creates another alarming inequity when it states that 'any pupil with a positive balance'...upon graduation...may use those funds for higher education costs for virtually any accredited post-secondary education institution in the State of Iowa. This indeed would put those who participate under the 'Educational Savings Account' program at a tremendous advantage over their public school counterparts. 

Perhaps the most egregious inequity in this bill can be found again in Division II, subsection 9. My friends who are proponents of this bill will contend that it is through competition that we will improve educational outcomes for all. The theory that a 'rising tide will lift all boats' I believe, is based on the premise of fairness. After all, the 'tide' of which we speak in this metaphor impacts each boat equally. This paragraph is anything but. In this section, it is made clear the nonpublic school does not, in fact, have to adhere to the same academic admission standards as the local public school. To further emphasize and expand on that theme, the final sentence of that paragraph states, "Rules adopted by the department to implement this section that impose an undue burden on a nonpublic school are invalid." In essence, what we will have here is a public school system operating under one set of rules, while the nonpublic school operates under another.

Where the shortcomings in this bill are numerous, I have outlined but a few. It is for those reasons I again respectfully request this proposal be rejected in its entirety.