(Jason Carter interviews superintendents for "School Talk" on Today in Iowa. After the segment airs, Carter emails seven follow-up questions for a web-only segment called "School Talk 'Xtra.")
This week, Jason Carter hosts School Talk 'Xtra with Hudson Superintendent Tony Voss.
Jason Carter: What is the deadline for the legislature to decide on the percentage of allowable growth? Why is this year different?
Hudson Superintendent Tony Voss: By law, the legislature is required to set allowable growth 18 months in advance and within 30 days of the Governor releasing his budget targets. Under normal circumstances, the legislature would have set allowable growth for the fiscal year beginning on July 1, 2014 during this legislative session and the allowable growth for the fiscal year beginning on July 1, 2013 would have been set during the last session. The reason it is different this year is because the Governor has indicated that education reform must be taken care of before allowable growth. This becomes a little bit more complicated because the Governor wants to change the way allowable growth is calculated, and this adds to the process. As you know, another priority of the Governor is property tax reform, and school districts are a taxing authority. The formula is rather complicated, but allowable growth is a blend of property taxes and state aide. The Governor would like to eliminate the property tax portion of allowable growth and instead have allowable growth (state aide supplement is the term he has coined for the revenue) be funded entirely by state aide.
Carter: Do schools have to decide to raise or lower taxes before the legislature makes up their mind on allowable growth as the schools' budget deadlines gets closer?
Voss: Yes, school districts must decide on property tax rates before the legislature makes up their mind on allowable growth. School district must certify their budgets to the County Auditory by April 15th. It is also important to note that school districts must publish their budgets in a locally circulated newspaper at least 10 days prior to the hearing and not more than 20 days prior to the hearing. That means that most school districts have published their budgets at this point. Our budget has been published at Hudson and the board will take action on April 8th. Once the budget is published and subsequently adopted by the Board of Directors, they cannot raise the rates—but they can lower them. The only way that rates will increase after publication is through legislative action (i.e. the ultimate resolution of allowable growth). The Iowa Department of Management has the statutory authority to make these adjustments.
So, this is causing school districts in many cases to make strategic decisions regarding property tax rates and allowable growth. It is almost like a guessing game! Because of the unknown variables, many districts are publishing budgets assuming allowable growth rates of anywhere from 0%-4% and setting higher tax rates assuming they will be able to lower them once the legislative process is resolved. In Hudson, we published a budget assuming 0% allowable growth because that is the current law. We also proposed a decrease in our tax rate of approximately .74. Our situation is a bit unique because of the fact that we experienced an enrollment bump this year. That certainly has helped out! That being said, we are in a holding pattern just like everyone else. Until we know more we can't make hiring decisions or settle the contract with our collective bargaining unit.
Carter: What part of "reform" is in the education reform package still alive in either house?
Voss: Both legislative chambers have passed education reform bills and sent them back to the opposite chamber for action. The bills use the framework that was proposed by the Governor and include 5 separate divisions: online learning initiatives, training and employment of teachers, Iowa promise diploma seal program, teacher and administrator development system, and the big one that we have all heard a lot about is teacher career and compensation. Some of the legislation has been struck, like the diploma seal program is no longer part of the bill, and several of the other items have been modified.
This is a very important and critical week for the legislative process. April 5th is the second funnel deadline and in order for legislation to stay alive, it must have passed through one chamber and a sub-committee in the opposite chamber. Since both chambers had previously passed varying versions of the education reform bill, they naturally wanted the opposing chamber to move on their proposal. A brief stalemate ensued until yesterday when the Senate Education subcommittee moved on the House version of education reform. They ‘amended' the House bill by striking their entire version and replacing it with the Senate version. The bill passed out of subcommittee on a party line vote: 9-6. I would surmise that it will get passed out of the Senate again this week, probably on a party line vote. The bill is destined for a conference committee between both chambers, so I think we are still several weeks from resolution. It is also worthy of note that the allowable growth bill has been wrapped up in this, making it even more complicated.
Carter: Are there any aspects to the reform packages other than starting teacher pay increase, increased pay for additional duties by teachers, and a grading system that are of interest to school districts?
Voss: I am probably going to come off as sounding evasive on this, but it really depends. There are several things that I don't see as critical components—for example the Iowa Promise Diploma Seal Program. Since it looks like this is a dead issue, it is not necessary to debate the point. I would have to say that I am interested to see how this whole legislative process unfolds—there are definitely some things that I like more than others. Right now, I am very cautious and perhaps skeptical. See, here's the deal. These are broad ideas that may sound good on paper, but once the details get fleshed out it may be a completely different story. I know it may sound like superintendents always say that, but in many cases the details are more important than the broad ideas.
The other issue is the funding. Some of these may be great ideas! The problem is that if they are not funded properly (or at all) it renders the initiative ineffective. You have to remember, when Tom Vilsack was Governor they created career ladders. The issue was that it was never funded, which is why we don't have career ladders for teachers now. And when we consider funding it has to be long term. When fully scaled up, the proposal is estimated to be $187 Million. That would be in addition to allowable growth (or state supplemental aide as the Governor calls it). The Senate version of allowable growth at 4% is around $160 Million, and remember the purpose of that funding stream is to take care of ongoing ‘cost of living' increases. I think if we are going to invest an additional $187 Million on top of that we can really move our state educational system forward, but I am very skeptical that will be the case. Another point, the LSA (Legislative Services Agency) came out with a report that stated the cost of the reform package was underestimated, and this is a non-partisan agency.
Carter: The longer allowable growth and education reform is debated in Des Moines, will there come a time that it will overlap and possibly overshadow local school board races?
Voss: Actually I don't think the allowable growth debate will have that large of an impact on local school board races. Allowable growth is a state issue that needs to be settled by the legislature. Where school boards become important in this process is as an advocate for their district. Our local board here at Hudson does an excellent job of communicating with our legislators, and in fact we host our legislators for a work session at a board meeting every fall. I am very proud of the fact that our Board of Directors is engaged politically and participates in lobbying events. We annually debate issues and develop our own local platform that is shared with the Iowa Association of School Boards and with our legislators. Our school district actually has a couple of pieces of legislation that we are working with our legislators to shepherd through the process right now!
Carter: What type of data has been collected to show the success or failure of 1-1 (computer/tablet) technology in the classroom?
Voss: Okay, shifting gears I see! This question must have to do with the fact that our district has recently decided to move to a 1-1 platform for our 9-12 students next year. I could literally write pages and pages of information on this one, but don't want to lose anyone! The first thing we need to do is define success. If we define success by how students perform on standardized tests, then there are few studies that would suggest an increase in standardized test scores. Now, there are plenty of studies that show student engagement increases dramatically through a 1-1 initiative, and a plethora of evidence indicates that engagement in school is causal to student success.
But let's dig a little deeper. Our decision was not based on how well a student does on a standardized test. While useful, that does not determine life success. We define success as what happens after students leave our schools. Whether they go to the world of college or the world of work, it is our duty to make sure students are ready for than next step. Empirically speaking there is no doubt that students need to have the skills that will enable them to be successful in a global community. The 1-1 does just that. We have to ask ourselves a couple of questions as adults. How often do we (or are we) required to complete a standardized test form in our daily lives or our daily work? When was the last time I filled out a scan-tron form? Sounds kind of silly, right? But how about this. When was the last time you had to use the Internet? When were you last required to type an email, prepare a power point, use social media? That's right, it is ingrained in our lives and it is our duty to make certain our students are prepared for that world. Look, there was a time when we used paper and pencils in the classroom. There was also a time when we had chalkboards in the classroom. Those days are over.
Then there is the social media aspect of the 21st Century. When I was a principal I used to tell the young people that it is better to make our mistakes in life while they were in school, where it was a safe environment. The consequences at the time, while they may seem significant, pale in comparison to what they will be in ‘the real world'. That is no longer the case because of the advent of social media. What we post is eternal and can have consequences far into the future. That is what makes it even more important for us to teach young people how to use these powerful tools in a responsible manner. I could go on and on, but here is one final point: when a young person turns 16 we don't just hand them the keys to the family car and tell them to go figure it out—why would this be any different?
Carter: How important is it for a school district to have a strong relationship with the community (specifically city or county leadership) to ensure joint success for both?
Voss: Schools and communities should be working in partnership and in tandem with one another. In most cases, neither the school or the city can stand on its own. Join cooperation is critical to the success of both bodies!
You can follow Voss on Twitter @anthonydvoss or read his blog atsuperintendentvoss.blogspot.com
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