Ankeny hasn’t earned the title of one of Iowa’s fastest-growing communities by chance. The lure of one of the state’s best school districts has brought countless young families to the Des Moines metro’s northern suburb. But many Ankeny parents now worry whether that world-class education will remain in the years to come for their children, thanks to the Iowa Legislature’s inability to fund schools at an adequate level.
Kevin Koester, the Republican State Representative for the southern half of Ankeny, has sided throughout 2015 with his party’s refusal to compromise on their 1.25% allowable growth funding increase. That has many local parents frustrated with their elected leaders.
“This is the one thing that goes across party lines,” says Kristi Holzer, a registered Republican who works in the corporate world with insurance and will have two young children in Ankeny schools this year. She says she’s heard from many fellow parents who are dismayed that education funding has proven the most difficult sticking point in the Legislature this year. “You can have your political differences, but when you’re dealing with people’s children, everyone has rallied around this point.”
“As a parent it bothers me because I’m afraid what impact it might have with my kids,” says Jenny Gray, a local teacher and parent with kids in the district. “I have one child with special needs and I worry about special ed funding.”
Gray says there’s been talk of pink slips among fellow teachers and she worries if she’ll have a job to go back to. She’s seen several well-qualified people be unable to get hired on full-time because of the budget impasse.
House Democrats began the year advocating for a 6% increase in state funds. Republicans proposed 1.25%. Democrats came down to 4%, then 2.62%. Republicans refused to budge at any point. There are now rumors of a deal where Republicans would keep the funding increase to just 1.25%, but allow a one-time fund of $55 million for the upcoming school year. That would likely set up another long, drawn-out fight during the next legislative session to get an additional $55 million or more for the following year. The state has a budget surplus this year of over $400 million, with an additional $700 million in “rainy day” funds available, both more than enough to cover a 4% increase.
School districts around the state have been put into a difficult bind over the situation. Setting next year’s funding is already long overdue and well past the time districts usually have to plan for. School administrators report they’ve already laid off or won’t fill over 1,100 positions around Iowa.
Ankeny schools so far haven’t laid off anyone, but will deal with the cuts through attrition, which could mean positions will still be reduced. In a statewide survey the district noted that “All class sizes K-12 may need to be increased. We simply cannot maintain our current ratios at the proposed funding level.” They’re also reviewing all their school programs for potential cuts if funding isn’t increased for the following year.
Even with a deal looming, it likely won’t be enough to keep Ankeny schools on a path to maintaining their current standard of education. “The teachers I work with have said it’s just not possible without 4%,” says Gray, frustrated with legislators’ actions. “They’re obviously not even listening to what the working people in our community need.”
Holzer has tried reaching out to her elected officials, with limited success. “I wrote a letter to both of our Representatives,” she says. “I may have voted for you, but I’m ashamed to say that.”
She got an email back from Koester cautioning her to not believe everything the media and teachers were saying, and that he understood the process was difficult to watch. He offered to call Holzer about it, which she says she agreed to, but never heard from him.
“What’s really disappointing is that once you get outside of the Golden Dome, just about anybody you talk to understands that education and living in an educated society is the foundation upon which all things have to be built,” Holzer says. “And I don’t understand how once they step through that Capitol doorway that doesn’t translate. Teachers, not teachers, people with kids, people without kids – everybody gets it. But there’s a disconnect somewhere with our legislators.”
“I think these people elected to do their jobs need to listen to their communities,” Gray says. “I haven’t talked to anybody in the community who thinks that 1.25% is acceptable.”
by Pat Rynard