State aid, penny tax and affordable accessPanelists have differing views on education priorities during legislative forum
BY BROOKS TAYLOR
Mt. Pleasant News
Ask a state legislator, a school superintendent and a college vice president their priority for education and you’re likely to get three different answers.
That was the case Saturday at the initial Mt. Pleasant Area Chamber of Commerce’s Legislative Breakfast at the Chadwick Library on the campus of Iowa Wesleyan University.
State Sen. Rich Taylor, D-Mt. Pleasant, said his is state supplemental school aid (allowable growth). “The governor has set supplemental school aid at 2 percent the next two years and that is not enough,” Taylor said.
Taylor repeated a claim he made Thursday that he could find 4-percent allowable growth for school districts and has filed a bill in the Senate for 4-percent state aid.
A critic of most state tax credits, Taylor said that if credits were cut to big corporations who don’t need them, the state would have more money for schools. “Our primary focus has to be K-12 education because if students don’t get the education by the time they leave high school, they aren’t going to a community college, college or a technical school. I am going to work hard for 4-percent funding.”
Mt. Pleasant Community School District Superintendent John Henriksen said he is more concerned about the penny option sales tax that schools receive.
“This is my 21st year in education and 11th year as a school superintendent,” he remarked. “We keep pounding on the table for allowable growth, but we are going to get what we get and have to deal with it. My priority this session is that the Iowa Legislature takes a hard look at the one-cent school sales tax. It sunsets in 2029. If we don’t get the penny, we will have to use more general fund money for education. That is a huge property tax issue because if we don’t get it (penny tax), we would have to use general obligation bonds for these projects (some of which are now funded by the sales tax) and those bonds would be paid off through property tax.”
Iowa Wesleyan Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. DeWayne Frazier said the top issue for his school is access and affordability. “The biggest misnomer is that private institutions are too expensive. At Iowa Wesleyan students, on average, pay less than 60 percent of the published price of tuition and fees. My biggest priority is continued funding of the Iowa Tuition Grant. We think that is important.”
The Iowa Tuition Grant is awarded to Iowa residents enrolled at Iowa’s eligible private colleges and universities. Priority is given to applicants with the greatest financial need. The statutory maximum is set at $6,000. Recipients can receive grants for up to four years of full-time undergraduate study.
Saturday’s breakfast was missing a panelist. State Rep. Dave Heaton, R-Mt. Pleasant, was unable to attend. Heaton was hospitalized at University Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City for tests.
In response to a question on Gov. Terry Branstad’s proposal to reform collective bargaining and implement a health-insurance policy for all public employees covered by IPERS, Taylor said ordinarily he would oppose it. However, he will delay a decision until he sees the policy. “It could be the best policy since peanut butter,” he quipped.
Henriksen said his experience with the collective bargaining process in master contract negotiations has been positive. “I think local groups bargaining locally is a good thing. It is a great way to building relationships. In general, I support collective bargaining.”
Lois Roth, a business teacher in the Danville School District, urged the legislature not to cut funding to career and technical education (CTE). She said it was one of the six program areas that would be impacted by budget cuts.
“Do not toss another ball and chain around the throats of K-12 or community colleges,” Roth said in a flyer presented to the panelists. “How do you expect each (K-12 or community colleges) to do more and more faster to close the skills gap? CTE redesign must receive your attention and your support. You’re making a statement by voting for financial redesign support.” Roth also urged the legislature to extend the state penny sales tax for schools until 2049.
Taylor said funding community colleges is the key to CTE and he has found enough money to spread to community colleges. “It probably is not as much as they should have.”
A former industrial arts instructor, Henrisksen said CTE was close to his heart. He urged the legislature to look at opportunities for school districts to make connections with neighboring districts. However, he stopped short of endorsing regional technical academies.
“We have worked with Mt. Pleasant High School and students on dual-credit courses,” Frazier said, noting that it is possible for a student to earn his/her certified nursing assistant (CNA) designation while still in high school. We need more welders and electricians. Maybe there are ways Iowa Wesleyan could help students with post-secondary options.
“We have students come through the registrar’s office that already have one year (of college) out of the way,” Frazier continued. “I think the dual credit option and Iowa Tuition Grant are very important. Dual-credit courses are a wonderful way for students to see if college is for them.”
Taylor and Henriksen, answering a question from a member of the audience, both said they do not support a school voucher system.
Naturally, questions on state finances are going to surface at any legislative briefing and those gathered Saturday wanted to know what could be done about the shortfall in the fiscal 2017 state budget and for the years following.
“The tax cut (property tax reform whereby commercial and industrial businesses received a rollback) was a huge mistake,” Taylor said. “The bill didn’t do what it was supposed to do. If I could take my vote back on that (he voted for it), I would.” Taylor also said that in the last three years, the state has given $12B to businesses in tax credits.
Continuing on the topic of state finances, Taylor questioned why the state’s rainy day fund, which has a balance of $738 million, could not be used to solve the budget dilemma. “When revenues don’t come in as expected, that is a rainy day. We can fix the $114 million deficit with rainy day money and still have $600 million in the fund. I believe we should take it out. By law we would have to replenish it in July and we could do that. We just have to look at tax credits. …If we work together, we can get through this (budget shortfall).”
In other legislative items, Taylor said he opposes taking away any funding for Planned Parenthood, saying the organization “provides a lot of good services to Iowans.”
Henriksen, in closing remarks, said he is concerned about state unfunded mandates. “If we don’t get sufficient allowable growth, unfunded mandates make it difficult. Also, the need for school-based mental-health services is very high. School personnel do not have expertise to meet those needs.”
The next legislative breakfast will be Saturday, Feb. 25, at 8:30 a.m. Taxation will be the main topic of the breakfast.