Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Legislative Priorities for the 2013 General Assembly

Each year local school districts work in collaboration with the (IASB) Iowa Association of School boards to develop a legislative platform for the coming General Assembly. IASB provides approximately 35-40 position statements that are drawn from previous platforms or other educational issues that have come up during the course of the legislative session, and presents those position statements to local boards for discussion and debate. Through our discussion, we select five of the positions to forward on to the IASB for consideration. During the annual meeting [of IASB] held in November, a Delegate Assembly  is convened and the collective membership will vote, and again debate the issues. This process is used to develop a legislative platform that provides focus and context for lobbying efforts.

During the regular session held on July 16, the Board evaluated the platform and discussed the issues. What follows are the five priorities of the Hudson Board of Directors that have been forwarded on to IASB  in rank order and a brief discussion of their merits and why they were selected.

  1. Strike age requirement language in Section 279.46 Code of Iowa regarding retirement fund incentives. Special note: This particular issue is not included on the IASB platform, but is rather a proposed piece of legislation that I asked Senator Jeff Danielson to submit for consideration. My feelings are so strong on this that I am asking one of our Board Members to present it on the floor for debate at the Delegate Assembly. Why this is important: First, you need to understand the context of this law. This law states that school districts may provide incentives to staff in an effort to retire early, and to pay those incentives out of the Management Fund. We often times provide these incentives as a way to encourage turnover of staff. While a difficult decision because this means that our most experienced teachers are encouraged to retire, we counterbalance this with the realization that this type of incentive has the net effect of reducing General Fund expenditures. By utilizing the Management Fund to pay for these incentives, it does exactly that. The problem is that this incentive can only be paid out of the Management Fund for employees between the ages of 55-65. The original intent of this law was to encourage early retirement. The problem is that Board Policy cannot legally be crafted in a way to fit those parameters. When a retirement incentive is offered, it must be for all employees (with at least 20 years of experience in the district), regardless of age. While employees between the ages of 55-65 can be compensated out of the Management Fund, employees over the age of 65 must be compensated from the General Fund. Remember: we have to offer the incentive to all employees in that job classification that have at least twenty years of experience. I would argue that it is counterproductive to offer a retirement incentive for the purposes of reducing General Fund expenses if you can't pay for that compensation out of the Management Fund. I would even go so far as to state that 279.46 is discriminatory in it's language.
  2. Supports the use of (PPEL) Physical Plant and Equipment Levy funds for the maintenance and repair of equipment or infrastructure that can be purchased or financed with PPEL funds. Why this is important: Again, the key in this issue is to reduce General Fund expenses. There are many indicators of financial health in a school district, from financial solvency ratio, to investment income ratio; and the unspent balance ratio. All of these are prime indicators of the overall financial health of a school district. I would argue (and some of my colleagues would probably disagree) that the unspent balance ratio is the most important indicator of financial health, and unspent balance is a function of the General Fund. Anything we can do reduce General Fund expenditures is a way to increase unspent balance. The key word in this issue is maintenance. Because of the way our RPS (Revenue Purpose Statement) is worded, most repair functions can be paid for out of the PPEL or SAVE (Secure an Advanced Vision for Education) Fund. If general maintenance was a permitted PPEL expense, we could not only increase our unspent balance ratio, but reinvest some of those General Fund dollars back into instruction. Let me give you one more quick example that is applicable to the Hudson Community School District. This past fall, we had the transmission go out on one of our activity buses. To replace that transmission, it would have been a General Fund expense. However, if I replace the bus, it becomes a PPEL expense. Does that sound a little silly to you?
  3. Supports a school foundation formula that adequately, and in a timely manner, funds changes in demographics, including declining and increasing enrollment challenges. Why this is important: Most school districts in Iowa are experiencing decreasing enrollment. This causes a problem in funding because school budgets are formula driven, and the most important variable in the formula is school enrollment. The enrollment is calculated using a number we commonly refer to as Certified Enrollment, which is due on October 15th each year. To put it into it's simplest terms, that number is multiplied by the DCPP (District Cost Per Pupil) and becomes one of the primary drivers when developing the budget. The problem is [that currently], when you couple declining enrollment with little or no allowable growth, it makes it very difficult to adequately address instructional needs of students. Take this very simple and real example. For Fiscal Year 2013 (which began on July 1, 2012), the state appropriation for allowable growth was 2%. When you factor that into the decreasing enrollment of Hudson, we end up with a net decrease in revenue for Fiscal Year 2013 of just over $40,000. The state has tried to address this in the past with a mechanism known as the budget guarantee, which will increase the budget for one year by 1% for that one year. Hudson was on the budget guarantee for one year, last year. The other problem is that the budget guarantee is funded through 100% property tax, whereas allowable growth is not.
  4. Supports a requirement that arbitrators first consider local conditions and ability to pay. After the arbitrator determines the school district or AEA has the ability to pay, the arbitrator should then consider comparability. Why this is important: In Iowa, teachers are represented by a labor union. Because of the critical work of schools, Iowa teachers are not permitted to strike. Instead, when there is a labor dispute that can't be resolved in the labor contract, a process called arbitration is used. Prior to arbitration, labor and management try to work out differences in a process called mediation where there is an attempt to reach consensus and common ground. When common ground can't be found, binding arbitration is the last resort. Arbitration is set up in a way that the arbitrator is not looking for common ground, they are going to pick one side or another and there is no common ground. In Iowa, the arbitrator does not typically look at the ability of the school district to pay the cost of the settled agreement, but instead rely on such statistics as settlement history in the district, comparability of other districts of similar size, and the statewide settlement average in Iowa. Common practice is for the arbitrator (judge) to select the side that is closest to the average settlement in Iowa. Basing an arbitration argument on ability to pay is not only very rare, but very risky. In fact, it is so rare that it has only successfully been argued one time in Iowa, and that was right here in Hudson last spring. The Hudson Community School District set precedent by winning its arbitration case based on ability to pay. Even with this precedent setting ruling, districts are reluctant to make this argument because ability to pay is not one of the first considerations and is a very difficult case to argue.
  5. Supports continued progress in the development of rigorous content standards and benchmarks consistent with the Iowa Core focused on improving student achievement, including the following state actions: provide and fund technical assistance to help school districts fully implement the Iowa Core; develop or obtain high-quality summative and formative assessments, aligned to the skills students should know and be able to do to succeed in the 21st Century; include and fund all the components of successful standards systems; assessments aligned to high expectations; improved and aligned instruction; and quality professional development. Why this is important: The Iowa Core has gone through so many iterations it is difficult for even the most well versed educator to keep track of what it is we are supposed to be teaching our students. Currently the proper term is "Common Core". The problem is that the standards are a mile wide and an inch deep. In order to successfully meet all the standards and benchmarks we are expected to cover with students it would take a K-22 grade system. This is compounded by the fact that the assessment system we use is an antiquated (fill in the bubble), multiple choice test (which offers no critical thinking skills). I would further argue that it does not align to the Common Core standards; and in [the] places that it does the standards are not relevant to our students (or students anywhere). We must clearly define what we are going to teach, and then assess that in a fair and balanced way. Right now we do not do that. For state policy makers to argue that the Iowa Assessment is aligned to the Common Core is not, in my opinion a valid argument. If it were, we wouldn't be spending so much time researching assessment systems like the Smarter Balance Assessments.