Baltimore visits Greene County school board

Chip Baltimore (R-Boone)
Chip Baltimore (R-Boone)

Rep Chip Baltimore (R-Boone), who represents Greene County, previewed the 2015 legislative session and shared his views on school funding, school calendars and other topics for the Greene County school board at its regular meeting Jan. 21.

Baltimore and Sen Jerry Behn (R-Boone) were both invited to the December meeting by school superintendent Tim Christensen. Neither was available in December, but Baltimore planned for the January meeting. Behn has not yet agreed to visit at a board meeting.

School funding: By law, the legislature must determine supplemental state aid (SSA) in mid-February, and Baltimore said the subject is “first up” in the House. State revenue estimates for the coming year were released in December and will be updated in March, Baltimore said. “The March numbers could make things look better. They could make things look worse,” Baltimore said. “But the bottom line is that we’re trying to come up with a fiscally prudent number… I don’t know what the number’s going to be.”

He said education funding will approach $3 billion this year, representing 54 to 55 percent of the state budget. “It’s clearly Priority One,” Baltimore said.

Long time board member Sam Harding, who has watched school funding for more than 20 years, pushed Baltimore, reminding him that the legislature failed to approve state supplemental aid last year. “Actually, you’re a year behind,” Harding said.

Baltimore admitted that, and said the House will probably look at two bills in this session – one to meet last year’s requirement and one for the current year. He explained that the legislature is supposed to approve SSA two years ahead of the school year in which it is spent so that the figure can be used by districts in their budgeting. The SSA that was supposed to be approved in February 2014 will be for the 2015-16 school year.

“If we didn’t learn any lessons in 2008 and 2009 about how far out we make commitments and then watch the revenues fall out from under us, and the pain that causes all over the state…. there are lots of sayings about what happens when you fail to learn the lessons of the past,” Baltimore said.

He said he is concerned about the “tenuous position” of the ag economy, pointing out the decrease in corn prices from $6 a bushel a year ago to less than $3 now. “That’s a huge change in a year, but the law says we’re supposed to set the supplemental state aid when corn was $6.50 a bushel for fall of 2015, and Lord knows what the price of corn will be,” he said.

“In your job you’re supposed to set a budget as quickly as you can with as much certainty as you can and with as little disruption to your organization as you can. We know that,” he continued. “But I think the last thing we want to do is set you up to fail because we couldn’t forecast correctly. According to the law and according to the calendar we’re a year behind… but I don’t agree with the law. I think it’s too fraught with uncertainty because we’re budgeting too far ahead.”

Personal income grew 3.2 percent in Iowa last year, according to Baltimore, and the bulk of education funding comes from income tax and sales tax, both of which are very dependent on personal income. He said the House is just starting the budget process, but that any increase to school funding beyond that 3.2 percent would require a cut in funding to other areas.

School start date: School calendars is also a hot topic in Iowa, with the recent notification from the Iowa Department of Education that it will not grant waivers allowing schools to start before the week that includes Sept. 1.

Baltimore expects to see a bill in the House that will call for local control of school calendars, but he doesn’t know if there’s enough momentum for a bill to pass.

He said his personal concern comes from schools that have students in classrooms in mid-August but send them home early because the classrooms get too hot. “To me, it’s about maximizing the classroom time for the kids. To me it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to start school in the middle of August if you’re sending them home at 1:00 because it’s too hot. I don’t think that’s best for the kids,” he said.

During the discussion of SSA, board member David Ohrt quipped that the House should put all its energy into the budget and let local school boards worry about the start date.

“I would be surprised if we relinquished complete control, even though we probably should, but I’d also be surprised if we did absolutely nothing,” Baltimore said. “The fact is that 99+ percent of the school districts apply for waivers pretty much tells you that probably is the best policy, to say ‘all right, you guys figure out your start date and take it from there’.”

Teacher Leadership: Baltimore also talked about the new Teacher Leadership program. The state allocated $50 million this year for the program, which is aimed at improving the teaching of those already in the classroom. The Greene County schools received $404,000 to implement the program locally. This is the first year for the program, with all schools expected to participate within three years, at a total state allocation of $150 million by the third year.

Baltimore assured the board that the legislature intends to continue funding the program. “Part of the whole concept as we put this all together was we’d look really stupid if we pass something, fund it for a couple of years, and then say ‘oh, guess what. We didn’t take into account that revenues might not come in as high as they were and now we have to cancel it.’ That’s not reform. That’s just poor budgeting,” he said

“We’re optimistic that we’ll continue the good things we’ve done recently and continue to move education in a better direction…. We do care about educating our children in Iowa. It is a priority. We may have some really nasty philosophical battles about how to do it, but from everybody’s perspective, and I don’t care where you’re at on the political spectrum, everybody down there cares about the children and cares that they get the best education they can,” Baltimore said.

Economic development: Board member Susan Burkett asked about efforts at the capitol toward rural economic development as a way to boost rural schools. He said that although the state can offer incentives, it cannot dictate where a business should locate.

He was very complimentary of economic development efforts in Greene County. “I’ve seen a lot of opportunity in Greene County over the last five years, or really over the last 20. You’re on the edge of something great here. I think Greene County probably has the most economic growth potential of any place in the state right now, especially given your size. You’ve got some great things, some development that’s going to happen. You’ve got a great group of community leaders and community members that are taking a vested interest in making sure this community succeeds. It’s exciting to see. I wish we could replicate that all over the state.”

More: Baltimore said the House would continue to discuss bullying, saying the challenges are to define “bullying” and to determine how far a school’s responsibility reaches. He used bullying that occurs outside of school hours via social media as an example.

Harding asked if the House would discuss school transportation, saying it would help rural districts if the code allowed students to be on a bus longer each day. Baltimore said it is difficult to get urban legislators to talk about the issue. The Department of Education is looking at an alternative to the Iowa Test of Basic Skills; director of learning Karen Sandberg and Christensen lobbied Baltimore on behalf of the Smarter Balance assessment.

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