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State Government News

Iowa Senate Leaves Des Moines Schools Out Of Pandemic Payments

Iowa’s Capitol on a cold snowy sunny afternoon.
John Pemble
/
IPR
The 2.2 percent increase in public school funding the Senate approved Tuesday is less than the 2.5 percent requested by Gov. Kim Reynolds and proposed by House Republicans.

State aid for PreK-12 schools would increase 2.2 percent under a bill passed in the Iowa Senate. School districts would also be in line for special funding to cover the cost of dealing with COVID-19, but not Des Moines Public Schools.

The Senate school funding bill (SF 269) includes $65 per student to pay for cleaning and staffing schools during the pandemic, but only in districts that followed state rules. At the start of the school year, DMPS violated return-to-learn rules by holding all classes virtually without permission from the Iowa Department of Education.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said any dispute between the district and state officials should not affect students.

“It’s alleged that the Des Moines school district violated the law. Okay, take them to court,” Quirmbach said in debate on the Senate floor Tuesday. “Or even better if you don’t like the way the Des Moines School Board has operated take them to the ballot box. Vote them out if that’s what you feel. The one thing we should not do is to take it out on the kids.”

Des Moines schools would stand to receive and estimated $2 million dollars if the district was included in the payments. Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, said leaving the district out is not meant to be punitive, but she also named Des Moines Supt. Thomas Ahart and said he did not act in good faith to follow state rules.

“This $65 is to cover the busing and the cleaning and the substitute costs that come with having actual children in actual classrooms,” said Sinclair, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

Sinclair said schools that pushed for in-person classes early and followed the law should have priority for the nearly $30 million in pandemic-related funding.

Des Moines schools would qualify for funding under a related proposal in the Iowa House, but the largest share of that money would go to the districts that have spent the most time in-person.

The 2.2 percent increase in supplemental state aid approved by the Senate is less than the 2.5 percent requested by Gov. Kim Reynolds and proposed by House Republicans.

At that level, around 141 school districts could collect $28.6 million in additional property taxes because they would qualify for budget guarantees to make up for a drop in state support caused by a drop in enrollment during the pandemic. Democrats proposed a larger increase in supplemental aid to keep that from happening, but the amendment did not pass.

Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-Windsor Heights, said the Senate proposal does not account for students expected to return to school next year.

“The vast majority will come back in fall ’21, but their funding won’t and this bill does nothing to fix that,” Trone Garriott said. “Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of dollars sit in surplus and hundreds of millions more in the rainy day fund. Nearly a billion dollars that we can’t find a way to use just a tiny bit for our schools.”

Sinclair said she agrees enrollment numbers from the fall are artificially low because of COVID-19, but she said a larger increase would be unsustainable if the pandemic caused more damage to the economy.

“This isn’t a cut. This isn’t inadequate,” Sinclair said. “It makes me sick and sad that we’re going to have budget guarantees that increase property taxes for some folks. My property taxes will be increased because student enrollments declined because of a pandemic, but it’s a unique year.”

Sinclair added that the Senate proposal increases state funding to replace property taxes in school budgets and includes additional money to make transportation and per pupil spending more even across the state.