Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Flexibility Needed for Our Preschool

In case you hadn't heard, the Iowa Legislature is now in session. So I think it is a good idea to remind myself what we talked about in my New Year's post: Be Patient! The first couple of weeks have been consumed with a de-appropriation bill of $118 Million (de-appropriation is a fancy way of saying budget cut), so we haven't seen a lot of new legislation...that is until this week. We'll spend some time in the coming weeks discussing various pieces of legislation and how they impact our school district. However, today I want to discuss flexibility within the context of our proposal to implement the statewide voluntary preschool program (SWVPP) in Hudson for the 2017-2018 school year.

On Tuesday, January 24, President Finn and
I attended an advocacy day a the Capitol.
Flexibility was a main topic of conversation
with Representative Rogers.
(Pictured, L-R: Rep. Timi Brown Powers,
President Finn, Dr. Voss, Rep. Walt Rogers)
Just to clarify, when talking about flexibility I am specifically discussing categorical funds in a school district budget. This is not a new phenomenon, and in fact is one that I have spoken of regularly. The last time was September 17, 2015 with the article 'Categorical Funding Revisited'. Simply stated, not all revenue received by a school district is treated equally. Sections of revenue are partitioned off and only allowable for certain types of expenditures. As one example of many, there are funds dedicated to be used only for professional learning in a school district. If a school district doesn't utilize all the revenue in that category for a particular year, it becomes what is known as a reserve fund balance and carries forward to the next year. The net effect of this is year after year these reserve fund balances grow and compound. And there is very little the school district can do about it because it is reserved for specific purposes. The only way these funds can be spent is on that specific purpose or 'category', and to make these type of expenditures when it is not warranted is not only reckless but irresponsible. These rules handcuff school districts and force us to keep reserve fund balances on our books year after year. What we would like the legislature to do is give school boards the flexibility to utilize these funds for other purposes, particularly if they can demonstrate they have satisfied the requirements for which the category was designed. At minimum, the ability to capture a percentage of these categorical funds for other school related purposes would be helpful. It is our opinion now, and has been for years that local school districts have a better sense of how best to utilize our funding sources, to be strategic in resource allocation, and operate in a responsible manner.

So about that preschool? We are preparing to move forward with the statewide voluntary preschool program for the 2017-2018 school year. In fact, I intend to seek authorization to submit our application at the February school board meeting. Since the board has been talking about this for some time, I am confident they will approve this action. We have a good application, and have worked with multiple community groups and private preschool providers including early childhood consultants from the AEA. So, we are going to proceed accordingly. The only hangup? Funding.

When the SWVPP was enacted by the legislature a decade ago, the state provided funding to start the program up during the implementation year. This revenue came in the form of a grant. During the second and subsequent years, revenue to operate the program was, and is, generated via normal school foundation formula. (Ironically, preschool funding is also considered a categorical funding stream.) In the intervening decade, that start up funding has been eliminated and school districts are left on their own to figure out how to fund the program during the initial start up year. Here is where it gets a little more complicated: we can't charge tuition, and we can't use any of our existing funds. Instead, what we have to do is go out and do some fundraising. At a minimum, we anticipate start-up costs to be in the vicinity of $102,010. That's an awful lot of bake sales! If anyone out there is interested in writing us a check....

Needless to say a bake sale isn't going to cut it. We have spoken with multiple funding entities to no avail: McElroy Trust, Cedar Valley Promise, First Children's Finance, and Head Start. None of these organizations have been able to help. But do you want to know the really weird thing? We already have ample revenue to implement the program. We just don't have the legal authority to access it! Heck, forget about the categorical funds for a second, we just have regular program dollars and enough in our reserves to fund the program during the first year. My proposal is a common sense approach: permit us to utilize part of our reserve fund balance to fund the SWVPP during the implementation year. Once the regular funding picks up during the second year, utilize the reserve fund balance from the preschool categorical (remember, I said this was categorical as well) to pay back the other reserve fund balance.

Nevertheless we are moving forward in our planning process and pending board authorization will
President Finn and I also had an opportunity to share our
concerns regarding flexibility with Senator Danielson.
The good news for us is this particular piece of legislation
appears to have bi-partisan support.
(Pictured L-R: IASB District Rep Kevin Powell, Dr. Voss,
Senator Danielson, President Finn)
submit our application to begin the SWVPP in time for the 2017-2018 school year. The caveat of course being the funding. At the same time, I will recommend that if the funding problem isn't rectified we will need to pull back. The good news is that we have communicated our intentions with the 'Little Pirates Preschool' and they are willing to fill the gap in the event we need to postpone our implementation. At this time we are planning a community night in conjunction with Little Pirates and other community providers to answer questions and provide a status update. (Stay tuned, this hasn't been scheduled yet.) It is likely that we will encourage parents to dual enroll in our public preschool program and one of the community providers in an effort to make sure your 4 year old children have a place to go in the event our funding doesn't come through.

The other good news? My proposal seems to resonate with the legislators and is gaining some traction. The idea of flexibility isn't new and has been part of our platform and many other school districts for the last several years. But I need your help. Please, contact your legislator and let them know how important this is for our community! You can find your legislator here.

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