Wednesday, January 28, 2015

World Class Schools?

Each year it is inevitable that an article like this is going to be posted to my blog. In fact, I am almost certain that a number of you out there have been wondering exactly when this article would appear. Despite that, I had always hoped and held on to some optimism that adequate funding would come through, and in a timely manner. Yet here we are again.

In his recent Condition of the State address, Governor Branstad recommended what equates to a 1.25% increase in supplemental state aid for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2015 (FY16), and a 2.45% increase for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2016 (FY17). Upon his return to office in 2011, the Governor set a bold agenda for Iowa schools and released a blueprint titled, "One Unshakeable Vision; World Class Schools for Iowa". In that blueprint, the following statement is made:
Iowans have long shared a deep commitment to giving our children the best education possible. We recognize young people today must meet higher expectations than ever to thrive in this global, knowledge-based economy. For the sake of our children and our state, it is vitally important that we build on our tradition of excellence to improve our schools. Iowa’s house of education still has a strong foundation, but it is also in need of a major remodel to be ready for the days ahead.
That claim and the paltry increase to school funding are in direct contrast to one another. It takes much more than this statement to give our children the best education possible. To put it frankly, it costs money to run schools. We will be unable to build on that tradition of excellence and meet those higher expectations without adequate resources. Instead, we may very well see an erosion of that very foundation.  

The fact is there are real consequences for not setting adequate and timely state aid for schools. Notwithstanding the 'strong foundation' that forms this 'house of education', what we may well be headed to without adequate resources is instead a house of cards that one good stiff wind will topple. Many have grown weary of these doom and gloom predictions and believe that school districts are crying wolf and that it is absurd to think, 'The Big Bad Wolf will huff and puff and blow our house down.'  A look at recent history would suggest this is happening all across our state.

We can look at our own recent example and see the consequences. It was the 2010-2011 school year, many of you remember it well. That was the year Hudson made major and significant budget cuts. While no doubt there were areas in which the district was 'long' in staffing, there were other areas that were cut further than we may have liked. To this day some of those areas remain below staffing levels I would prefer. Because of these cuts and sound fiscal practices in the intervening years we have been able to right that ship. Our financial footing is much firmer than it was five years ago and we have made tremendous progress. However, this year I am predicting a decrease in our unspent balance which means that we will deficit spend. This certainly isn't the crisis it was five years ago because we can absorb short term deficit spending--that is what the unspent balance is designed to do. But with a pattern of under funding coupled with a drop in enrollment, if we aren't careful we can very quickly see our reserves depleted by compounding years of inadequate funding levels. Every one of you out there know that it is not a wise practice to spend our savings on recurring costs.

To put this into real numbers for you, the 1.25% the Governor is proposing equates to $25,895 in real dollars for the Hudson Community School District. In reality this equates to budget growth of .59%. The cost to advance teachers on the salary schedule is $40,976, which is before we even begin to negotiate the contract for the 2015-2016 school year. Then there are other increases in the budget that we also can't control, such as energy and curriculum supplies.

Unfortunately our story isn't all that unique, or to many of my colleagues even interesting. It is, however symptomatic of a much larger and graver problem. We made some tough decisions and have been able to recover. I am confident that with discipline and thoughtful deliberations we will continue to thrive and survive for years to come--provided we are given adequate resources in which to operate.

When I became superintendent of schools in 2010 there were somewhere in the neighborhood of 359 school districts in Iowa. Five years later, we are down to 338. Last year it seemed that a week didn't go by where the top story on the news was a school district that was making significant budget cuts. The myth that cuts are isolated to smaller school districts is also simply untrue. The reality was that cuts were happening all around us and were in some of the largest school districts in the state. I can think of one school district that had to cut $3.5 Million last year, and is slated to cut that much again this year!

In our own neighborhood, school districts are making cuts to their budgets that may forever alter the makeup of communities. You know this because we all have friends that are directly impacted! One school not too far from us is cutting close to $1 Million, while another is considering the closure of a school building. At our recent superintendent meeting we took the time to go around the table and share what the new funding proposals would mean for our school districts. I can tell you that everyone of the sixteen superintendents around the table that day do not see anything good coming from these numbers.

Many of us hope that we can cover through attrition, which means not hiring replacement teaches when someone departs. That has the unfortunate side effect of driving up class sizes. Those that don't will make cuts where they can and budget adjustments where appropriate; anything that we can in order to ensure that we are providing a quality educational experience that rises to the level of World Class Schools!


  1. Can you explain why a 1.25% increase is actually only a 0.59% increase?

    1. That is a great question, Scott! Appreciate you asking!

      First, we need to understand what exactly these two percentages represent. 1.25% represents the number by which the State Cost Per Pupil will grow, 0.59% represents the application of this number to the Regular Program District Cost. At 1.25%, this is an $80 increase per pupil. That $80 is then applied to each individual school districts Cost Per Pupil (District Cost Per Pupil and State Cost Per Pupil are not the same thing.)

      Now then, let's say we have a school district with 1,000 students in attendance during the 2014-2015 school year. For the sake of argument, let's assume we apply the current state cost per pupil ($6,366) to this 1,000 students ($6,366 X 1,000). We would then arrive at a Regular Program District Cost of $6,366,000.

      For the 2015-2016 school year, we know that 1.25% equates to $80 per pupil so our cost per pupil increases by that amount. $6,366+$80=$6,446. Here is where 1.25% doesn't equal 1.25%: Again, using our example of 1,000 students this year, let's assume that we lost 20 students for the next budget year; so now we have 980 students. (980 X $6,466). Now we arrive at a Regular Program District Cost of $6,333,680. You should notice that now, you have $32,320 less in revenue. In order to drive to the actual increase of 0.59% requires an understanding of a mechanism in the Iowa School Finance Law known as the Budget Guarantee.

      So, to finally get to the answer to your question about the .59% increase, please go to this URL: and then click "The Budget Guarantee" on our website.

      Thanks for your question, I hope this helps!