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Lawmakers Scrounge Up Bus Money for Rural School Districts

Carl Wycoff
Former school in Shipley, Iowa. Shipley and Nevada consolidated their school districts in 1958.

A bill in the Iowa house would allow school districts to levy taxes to supplement transportation costs, but some say the legislation doesn't do enough to help rural districts.

Many school districts in rural Iowa cover a large geographic area, so a sizable portion of general operating budgets is spent on busing at the expense of other expenditures like text books and teacher salaries. Enabling school boards to raise property or income taxes to address transportation costs would allow districts more budgeting leeway. 

Representative Curt Hanson, a Democrat from Fairfield, sits on the bill’s subcommittee. He says because the Des Moines River diagonally divides his district, transportation costs eat up the general budgets for schools in his area.

"This is not good for rural education and not good for rural development if we develop a two-tiered system of schools that the rural districts are disadvantaged through the geographically problems in their own district or the sparsity of their student population," Hanson says. "We see some severe rural economic problems in the future for rural Iowa."

Dan Maeder, superintendent of schools in Davis County, says he's glad lawmakers are paying attention to the issue of transportation in rural districts. However Maeder worries that the bill will actually increase the disparity between wealthy and poor districts.  

"We have plenty of authority right now in our school district, but our tax payers are tapped," Maeder says.  

Brad Hudson from the Iowa State Education Association told lawmakers that since many rural school districts are financial strapped, it will take state funding to adequately address the issue.

Credit J. Stephen Conn
Artist Grant Wood, who painted "American Gothic," attended Antioch School between 1897 and 1901. The former one-room school is located near Anamosa in Jones County.

"When we have over half our districts not increasing in funding, we’ll get the kids to the front door, but we may not have the educational program for them," Hudson says. 

Due to financial pressures many rural Iowa school districts have consolidated in recent years. Unification can increase transportation costs since students in the consolidated districts often travel farther to get to class.

Rep. Larry Sheets, a Republican from Moulton, authored the bill. He acknowledges the legislation is not perfect, but says he hopes the doors of rural schools will remain open if districts are given more flexibility in budgeting.  

“If any of you have been around towns where the schools cease to exist, the town no longer has parades, jamborees, ball games, the town loses its soul and basically that which is Iowa vanishes,” Sheets says. “This bill…gives the citizens of the town involved the chance to decide whether or not they’re willing to pay a little bit more in taxes to keep that school alive and their businesses afloat.” 

Credit Tom McLaughlin
Silver Lake Township Consolidated School in Ayrshire, Iowa.