Pella board meets with legislators

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Members of the Pella School Board talk with legislators. (photo by Steve Woodhouse)

Local legislators sat down to have a discussion with the Pella School Board on Oct. 14.

Senators Ken Rozenboom and Amy Sinclair, along with Rep. Dustin Hite, took part. The discussion opened with the legislators sharing what they will be working on when the session convenes in January.

Rozenboom, as a member of the natural resources committee, would work on the sales tax increase already approved by voters. Years ago, Iowans gave the Legislature permission to use 3/8 of a cent sales tax to be used for preservation of nature. Rozenboom added that education is always atop his list, and the State has a $300 million surplus following the 2019 session.

Hite said one of his top priorities is getting better broadband coverage to rural Iowa. This includes the possibility of opening the Iowa Communications Network to commercialization, since the government is not utilizing it. He believes better service can come with a private provider. Improving Internet speeds in rural areas will require funding, but Hite believes that all of Iowa has an issue with high speed Internet.

Sinclair, who does not represent Pella, but rather the bulk of Marion County and beyond, is the chair of the education and the government oversight committees. She is also on the education appropriation, judiciary and commerce committees. There are many priorities for her, including transportation funding inequities in the state (rural districts spend more money to transport students than in more populous school districts).

“We should not have inequities built into the funding system,” Sinclair said. She will continue to work on solutions for violent classroom behavior and student mental health. The law says students must be placed in the “least restrictive environment”. However, that phrase is not clearly defined at the federal level. Sinclair believes it does not necessarily mean the regular classroom – sometimes, that can actually be a restrictive environment. She added that discussions may take place to increase that 3/8 of a cent to a full penny, with the remaining sales tax percentage to be used to benefit children’s mental health.

“We’ll also be looking at our tax reforms,” Sinclair said. Finally, she added that improved oversight over federally-funded programs will be a priority, as the state has been fined millions of dollars for improper disbursement of Medicaid benefits.

State Supplemental Aid is always a significant topic every session. Prior to the meeting, the Revenue Estimating Conference – which has a history of being incorrect – estimates that Iowa’s economy will grow by 1.7 percent. Sinclair did not specify what the Legislature would try to pass for SSA, but said it will be passed early in the session. Iowa law requires it to be set within the first 30 days, though the Legislature has not always abided by that. Sinclair said in week one, she will push it through her subcommittees provided there is a number that works.

Hite wants schools to receive what the State can afford, but there are other things that also need funded. Education will still get the bulk of the increased tax revenue, he predicts. He also supports addressing transportation inequities, though it will not likely affect Pella.

Rozenboom touted the Legislature’s decision in 2019 to extend the SAVE sales tax to 2049. The board thanked him for that, as it allows districts to borrow against this anticipated funding to pay for major projects – without raising property taxes.

Board President Joan Corbin inquired about the future of education savings accounts, which allows money to be set aside for people to put their children in private schools. Sinclair said it probably will not be addressed this session.

“There is not enough support there,” Rozenboom added. He would support it if it comes up for a vote. Hite said he is not in favor of them.

“There is even less support in the House,” Hite added.

Another inequity Sinclair intends to address is regarding open enrollment. Currently, there are five districts that block students’ ability to transfer out. She does not believe that is fair to the students living within those districts.

The board seeks to continue advocating for the district and schools overall through the session. Legislators prefer face-to-face meetings, but that can be difficult. If that will not work, emails are the next best thing.

“It’s never my intention to ignore people,” Hite said. He asked board members for notice that they are coming so he can set aside time to meet.

“Schedules are very, very fluid up there,” Rozenboom said. Rozenboom added that, based upon his research, Iowa was singled out for its commitment to increasing teacher pay. Between 2000-18, Iowa’s pay has increased 8.6 percent when adjusted for inflation. Surrounding states have negative numbers. There is still a shortage of teachers and people willing to teach throughout the Midwest.