Sales taxes should fund classroom needs before stadiums1/1/2020
The Des Moines school district is sitting on a $100 million building fund.
Iowa school districts cannot use sales tax dollars to pay instructors or professionals to assist with discipline and other educational support activities. State law mandates sales taxes fund only capital projects — sales taxes pay for buildings, not learning. The Des Moines Public Schools (DMPS), which collects $33 to $34 million per year in sales taxes, plans to spend $15 million of its sales tax bounty to build a soccer stadium at Drake University. Building a shiny new stadium while class sizes increase and discipline crumbles inside school buildings demonstrates why the legislature should change the law restricting sales tax revenue as soon as possible after convening in January.
As sales tax revenues fill construction coffers, stagnant state funding for education has forced schools to reduce faculty. The legislature’s failure to fund education is part of the reason a school district like Des Moines is descending into crisis.
Because state supplemental aid, the amount of new money available to schools, has lagged inflation for several years, the teacher-to-student ratio in Des Moines is heading the wrong direction. Des Moines is cutting budgets as its need to recruit and retain professional staff multiplies.
Making the DMPS calamity worse, staff members are fleeing. Severe discipline issues are causing overstressed DMPS staff to resign in unprecedented numbers. Last year, 225 teachers decided to leave Des Moines schools for reasons other than retirement, the most in at least a decade. High teacher turnover impacts learning, decreases student safety and compounds stress for those left behind. The taxpayers’ financial cost for replacing teachers who leave early is at least $4.5 million per year.
Teacher and staff injuries involving students at DMPS increased by 88 percent — to 425 from 226 — over the past five years. OSHA issued a workplace violation in response to violence at one elementary school. Student absenteeism is skyrocketing.
Meanwhile, Thomas Ahart, superintendent of DMPS, wants to spend $15 million of the nearly $100 million the district has in its sales tax-fed building fund to construct a state-of-the-art soccer stadium at Drake University.
I am going to pause and let that sink in for a moment. The Des Moines school district is sitting on a $100 million building fund.
After delaying a vote of the school board in light of criticism of the stadium project, Superintendent Ahart scheduled four community presentations this month to bolster support for his stadium. The district dedicates no fewer than eight website pages to promote the stadium. The pages include facts, figures, videos, images and a question-and-answer section. A lot of time, effort and resources not funded by sales tax dollars are being expended to sell the stadium to the community. Meanwhile, teachers and staff members who find it impossible to do their jobs are leaving in droves. The problems hindering education deserve at least as much attention as the administration’s latest
pet building project.
The Des Moines school district has placed its once lofty aspirations to become a national educational leader on hold as it grinds into survival mode. By choosing to voice his plan to build a stadium, while remaining nearly silent about the problems festering in schools, Superintendent Ahart is failing to lead. Instead of rallying the community and his fellow educators across the state to find solutions and lobby Gov. Kim Reynolds and legislators to increase state funding for education, Ahart is holding events to bolster support for building a stadium on the property of a private university.
The Des Moines school board should roundly reject Ahart’s stadium proposal and redirect him to focus on the educational crises. Imagine what the district could accomplish if instead of promoting a stadium, its leaders expended the same level of effort to generate support for changing Iowa’s sales tax law. Allowing DMPS to use the $100 million of sales tax funds already collected and the $33 to $34 million it
receives annually to address school safety, security and the quality of education would be a real game-changer for the game played in classrooms, not those played at stadiums.
Iowa legislators and Gov. Reynolds should change the law that puts stadiums ahead of education, school safety and professional support. Using school sales tax funds for education would satisfy legislators disinclined to raise taxes and those seeking to increase school funding. Allowing school districts to apply sales tax dollars for instruction, safety and mental health would put our schools back on the right track. ♦
Graham Gillette is a former Des Moines School Board Member.