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Civic Skinny

Nov 10, 2011
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How the state screws the schools. Looking to the year 2344.

Watch what they do, not what they say.

Iowa’s statewide politicians — right and left — talk about education as a top priority. How are they doing so far? For starters, they’re screwing the Des Moines school district out of $6,065,189 this year, the Ankeny district out of $1,350,338, Southeast Polk out of $1,277,885, the West Des Moines district out of $793,614, Urbandale out of $427,137 and Dallas Center-Grimes out of $245,718.

All told, the legislators and governor are shortchanging 334 Iowa school districts by $68,466,052 this school year.

Iowa’s school-aid formula is incredibly complex, involving one or two bites out of the property tax, an income surtax in some places, a special tax in some communities, and money from the state. There are probably only 17 people in the whole state who understand it, and three or four of those are probably dead. The system itself has long been tilted toward mediocrity because there has long been a cap on what districts can spend per student. So even if the people in a town wanted to tax themselves to double their spending on the town’s schools, they couldn’t.

In 1989, the Legislature dealt with this in part. It said that beginning in 1992 a district could increase its budget by 10 percent over the formula, and it set up a complex scheme to pay for that with a combination of state and local money. Poorer communities got a bigger share of the state money for their students; richer communities got less. Taken as a whole, the state agreed to fund 25 percent of the program.

And it did. For one year.

As it turns out, taxpayers in more and more communities have been willing to shell out extra so the town’s kids could learn a little more. Initially, 156 of 425 districts signed up. By this year, 334 of the state’s 351 districts — all but 17 — have joined the program, with citizens allocating nearly $200 million of extra local taxes for their local schools. Parents want their children to learn.

But legislators and the governor apparently don’t. Beginning in 1993, the state kept slicing the percentage it paid for. They did this by capping the state outlay at $14 million to $15 million, so as more districts signed up, there was less for every student. Then for this year, they said to hell with it — and they eliminated all state funding. So a number that, by formula, should have been $68,466,052 turned out to be zero. Because the state aid was designed to help poorer communities the most, the elimination of the program hurts them the most — cutting as much as half the program in some communities.

Adding craziness to dumbness, the state has told the districts they may not spend their own money to make up the shortfall.

All of this is laid out pretty clearly in a 16-page report issued last Thursday by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. Don’t bother to read it; you’ll just get pissed off.

Watch what they do, not what they say. ...

Real-estate news: Rochelle Levy has sold her 5,000-square-foot home at 28 35th St. to Heidi Muelhaupt for $849,000, a bit below the latest assessed value of $908,700, according to county records. It was the second highest sales price for a single-family home in Des Moines this year, trailing only the $1,026,000 that Thomas Bernau paid Dan Stanbrough for his 7,300-square-foot home nearby at 10 35th St.

University news: Charlie Cook, probably the nation’s best political analyst, will be the first Harkin Lecturer at the new Harkin Institute of Politics at Iowa State University. Cook, a regular TV commentator and author of the widely followed Cook Political Report (often described as “acclaimed”), will speak at noon on Nov. 29 at the Iowa State campus. The talk is free. It’s the first official — or nonofficial, for that matter — function of the new Institute, which recently named ISU professor Dave Peterson as acting director. The nonpartisan Institute will house the papers of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, will bring in scholars and lecturers and will become a resource center for areas Harkin has concentrated on — particularly agriculture, health, education, and disabilities. The New York Times has described the Cook Political Report as “a newsletter both parties regard as authoritative.”

Jobs news: Iowa nonfarm employment at the end of September was 1,488,600, up from 1,473,600 a month earlier and up 500 jobs from when Terry Branstad took office at the start of the year, according to the Legislative Services Agency. With the new figures, the governor has only 199,500 jobs to add to fulfill his pledge of 200,000 new jobs over five years. However, at the rate he’s going — 50 jobs a month — it will take 333 years to reach his goal. Put another way, if Branstad is re-elected to another 75 four-year terms, he’ll reach the goal.

Assuming nothing bad happens in the next 333 years. CV

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