Local legislatures give two cents on school funding

State Sen Rich Taylor (D-Mt. Pleasant) and State Rep. Dave Heaton (R-Mt. Pleasant) may come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, but Monday night the two were united against school voucher/educational savings account systems.

Taylor and Heaton attended the Mt. Pleasant School Board?s work session Monday night to discuss school funding and legislative priorities.

When asked how he thought the legislative session would go in 2018, Taylor was quick to say he was sure the Republican-led legislature would quickly bring the topic of switching to a school voucher or educational savings account system back to the table. ?They both terrify me,? Taylor said.

School vouchers are subsidies given to parents for tuition at any school ? public or private. The educational savings account would allow parents to use funds for any educational need such as tuition, books, etc. Taylor added that instead of school districts receiving nearly $7,000 per student, with the voucher or savings account program, he?s heard each student would receive as little as $5,000.

?Constitutionally, you can?t transfer money from one school to another. The plan would give the state money to the parent per child in this savings account. The parent would have the choice to send their student where they want to go,? explained Heaton.

?I oppose this as much as the Senator does,? Heaton added.

Heaton continued, saying he understood wanting to give children the option to go to a better school if the district they?re in is subpar. ?That?s why we have open enrollment,? he said.

Board member Martha Wiley said she had issue with the educational savings account system as she felt the funds could be used in ways not intended by the state.

?I think it leaves the door open for a lot of abuse,? Taylor agreed.

Heaton did not believe talks of school vouchers or educational savings accounts would go very far, especially if superintendents and school boards from rural districts would contact their local legislators.

The legislators also discussed transportation funding, as it?s a priority for rural school districts. Both legislators agreed using a school district?s general fund to supplement the cost of transportation was killing rural school district?s budget. Taylor said he didn?t believe coming up with a formula to tackle transportation costs should be that difficult. Heaton said he believed districts should levy for those funds. ?All school districts are different, you have schools with high transportation costs because they cover a large area ... The quality of education those students are receiving, transportation costs should not be a burden.?

Superintendent John Henriksen said he didn?t know if a property tax levy was the best way to solve the rising issue of transportation costs. ?If you need to levy an additional property tax for other things, people are likely to say ?that?s enough?.?

During the work session, Henriksen also discussed SAVE funding with the legislators. SAVE funds are a penny sales tax, which is set to expire in December of 2029. Henriksen said SAVE funds has helped the district move forward with large projects without having to levy, or levy as much property tax funds. For example, the district is currently working to air-condition all four elementary schools. The $2 million project is being done with SAVE funds. However, as the sunset for the money nears, districts are having issues planning long-term projects.

Heaton and Taylor agreed they would like to see the penny sales tax extended and used only for educational needs. In recent years, former Governor Terry Branstand proposed using a portion of SAVE funds for water quality.

In regards to allowable growth, Heaton said he had no idea how that conversation would go. ?We?re going to have to figure it out right out of the gate.?

After years of dragging out the discussion of allowable growth, legislators have promised to have school funding figured out within the first 30 days of the session.

As the state?s budget has been facing cuts, Heaton said he is unsure how much, if any, allowable growth will be given to districts this year. ?Because of declining enrollment you have had to make budget changes. It?s a tough time for both sides.?