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Iowa Senate sends AEA overhaul, teacher pay package to Gov. Kim Reynolds

Proposals to overhaul the AEAs changed multiple times and often dominated discussions in the legislature. Now a final bill is headed to Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Madeleine King
IPR file
Proposals to overhaul the AEAs changed multiple times and often dominated discussions in the legislature. Now a final bill is headed to Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Iowa Senate Republicans are sending an education package to Gov. Kim Reynolds that fulfills her call for an overhaul of the state’s Area Education Agencies.

The final bill (HF 2612) requires districts to continue using the AEAs for special education services, but by the 2026-2027 school year districts would take control over 10% of state funding for those special ed supports.

It also includes a shift in the funding that is currently dedicated to the AEAs’ media and education services. The plan sends at least 40% of that funding to the AEAs next year, but after that districts would control 100% of it.

Sen. Lynn Evans, R-Aurelia, said the plan increases local control. Districts can continue paying for the services they like from their AEAs or they can direct some, or all, of the money into their general purpose budgets.

“Those are local property tax dollars generated by local taxpayers,” Evans said. “And they can use those funds for any local general fund purpose which includes ed services and media services provided by the AEA.”

The bill goes beyond extensive changes to AEA funding and oversight. It also includes a new mandatory minimum salary for teachers and a 2.5% increase in state aid for schools.

Democrats said the package as a whole will destabilize both the AEA system by shifting funding and responsibilities, and also public schools by holding the increase in state aid to a rate lower than the rate of inflation.

The two issues come together, said Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, when schools control funding that currently goes to the AEAs. With state aid rising 2.5%, he said, districts will be inclined to keep more of that money local.

“With the way this bill has SSA not even catching up with inflation, school districts are going to have to siphon off some of their resources for special education just to maintain what they have,” Dotzler said. “And the end result is people with disabilities are going to get the short end of the stick.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds initially called for changes to the AEAs in her Condition of the State Address at the start of the session. She proposed giving the Iowa Department of Education greater authority over the AEAs and the final proposal moves the system in that direction.

It recreates a Division of Special Education at the Iowa Department of Education to oversee the AEAs and their compliance with state and federal laws. Up to 13 employees will be based in Des Moines and up to 40 more staff members will be based at the nine AEA regions around the state.

The Director of the Department of Education will be in charge of approving professional development programs offered by the AEAs.

AEAs must report back to districts quarterly to show how much funding they have received and the value of services they have performed.

By January, the AEAs must report plans to reduce administrative spending by 30%. New salary contracts with AEA administrators will be limited to 125% of the average salary of superintendents in the region.

Finally, the bill creates a task force that will study special education student outcomes and AEA services, and will make recommendations to the legislature by the end of the year.

In a statement, Reynolds thanked the lawmakers who kept the legislation moving forward.

“Change is seldom easy, but it is necessary to achieve better results,” Reynolds said. “Reforming the AEA system creates accountability, transparency, consistency, and most importantly, better outcomes for all Iowa’s students.”

She pointed to the raise in teacher pay in the bill as a reflection of the importance of their role in education.

The bill raises the minimum salary for both new and veteran teachers. Starting in July, the minimum salary for a new teacher will go up from $33,500 to $47,500. The next year it will rise to $50,000.

For a teacher with 12 years of experience in the profession there is a minimum salary of $60,000 in the first year under the bill and $62,000 the following year.

In addition, the plan includes $14 million per year to help schools raise wages for support staff such as paraeducators. That’s something Democratic Sen. Molly Donahue of Cedar Rapids said she supports, but should have been dealt with separately from the AEAs.

“I know that I will be a ‘no’ on this bill, not because I don’t want to raise teachers’ pay — because I certainly do, they deserve it — but the AEAs also deserve a better hand than what this is dealing them,” Donahue said.

Dotzler and other Democrats accused Senate leaders of trying to “logroll” lawmakers into voting for the bill by attaching the popular raise in teacher pay to the less popular AEA overhaul.

In the end, the bill passed on a vote of 30 to 18 over opposition from all Democrats and three Republicans — Sen. Charlie McClintock, R-Alburnett, Sen. Waylon Brown, R-St. Ansgar, and Sen. Mike Klimesh, R-Spillville.

McClintock told lawmakers he voted no in response to the overwhelming opposition he heard from constituents.

“But I don’t think the governor was wrong for calling for a review of the AEAs,” McClintock said. “I just think the AEAs are not only fully capable but completely willing to review their processes without this legislation being forced upon them. The debate over this issue should be taking place in a conference room somewhere with AEA chiefs and school administrators, and not in the chambers of the Capitol by lawmakers.”

Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-West Des Moines, said Democrats will remind voters of the AEA bill when elections come around in November. The issue was quickly picked up in dueling releases from Iowa Democrats and the Iowa GOP.

Iowa Democratic Party chair Rita Hart accused Republican lawmakers of forcing the bill through to “appease Gov. Reynolds.” Republican Party chairman Jeff Kauffman singled out Democrats in competitive districts. He accused them of voting against raising teacher pay, without detailing the extent of the bill.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa