‘Doomed to failure:’ Iowans speak out on proposed AEA changes

The Iowa House Education Committee held a public hearing for one of three AEA bills floating in the legislature, which has been unpopular with a majority of Iowans. Photo by Ty Rushing/Starting Line

By Ty Rushing

February 22, 2024

Stacey Warren was one of the first people on the scene of the Perry High School shooting on Jan. 4, but she’s not a first responder: She’s a social worker for the Heartland Iowa Area Education Association (AEA).

“I went to Perry and we were there before 10 a.m. and we have continued to serve them and we were able to do so because it’s part of our plan,” Warren said. “We actively have critical response plans, emergency plans, and it’s organized and it is filled with providers to be able to provide the services.”

School shootings aren’t the only tragic events AEA employees help Iowa students, staff, and administrators handle. Warren said since Perry, they’ve helped people in their AEA region get through several tragedies: fatalities from car accidents, two homicides, a teacher whose baby died, and more.

“Districts are not prepared and do not have the resources to handle these things alone,” Warren said. “We walk side-by-side with those superintendents, building principals, mental health teams in the schools.

“You might think that other mental health providers, community, or clergy could just take over these services but what I will tell you is that who’s going to remember to go to the school and say, ‘Did you remember to turn off the attendance so that [the parents] of the student that died doesn’t get emails saying they’re not going to be there today.”

Warren shared her story during a public hearing Wednesday evening as an example of the range and value of services provided by Iowa’s nine AEAs. The public hearing was an opportunity for the public to discuss the Iowa House Republican’s bill that would reform AEAs. It’s one of three versions of the legislation floating around both chambers of the legislature.

AEAs were formed in the 1970s to provide educational equity throughout Iowa via nine regional service providers. Under current law, Iowa school districts allocate state and federal special education dollars to AEAs—AEAs also have property tax levies— and in return, AEAs provide a wide array of services to districts.

The two versions of the AEA bill—including Gov. Kim Reynolds’ revised version—that are alive in the Iowa Senate take a sledgehammer approach to the AEA model, while the House version is a little more surgical. The House previously declined to advance Reynolds’ bill.

According to the Des Moines Register, some notable differences between the House version of the AEA bill and Reynolds’ AEA bill are:

  • Capping AEA director salaries to the average salary of school superintendents within the AEA’s boundary.
  • Keep federal special education dollars allocated to AEAs, but let districts collect state aid and property tax dollars. However, districts would still be required to use AEA special education services.
  • Schools could choose whether to continue contracting with AEAs for media services and general education services under a “fee for service” structure, or they could get those services from a private provider.
  • Instead of being implemented by the 2024-25 school year, changes wouldn’t take effect until the 2025-26 school year.
  • The House bill also removed the teacher pay bump provision that Reynolds attached to her bill into a separate piece of legislation.

Most supporters and detractors agreed at Wednesday’s hearing that, while AEAs offer an immensely valuable service to Iowa’s children, they have room to improve. The disagreement lies in what changes—if any—should made to the 50-year-old service providers. 

Education Committee Chairman Rep. Skyler Wheeler (R-Hull) structured the hearing so that it alternated between pro and con speakers. Of the 42 people who signed up to speak, 28 were against the legislation, but the one-hour hearing ended before nine con speakers got a chance to speak.

Multiple Iowa school district superintendents spoke at the public hearing. The reception was mixed, with some advocating a hands-off approach to AEAs, while others welcomed the opportunity to tap directly into those special education dollars AEAs receive.

“When we rush change from the top in an effort to get rid of something we perceive we don’t want, the likelihood of getting something worse increases,” said Woodward-Granger School District Superintendent Mark Lane. 

Lane said he is a strong believer in the “principles of continuous improvement,” but he thinks fast-tracking change for change’s sake without getting others involved—as Reynolds’ original bill did—is “doomed to failure.”

Ottumwa School District Superintendent Mike McGory spoke in favor of the bill. He acknowledged that AEAS provide valuable services and he does not want to see them devastated by this legislation, but he also wants the district to have more footing.

“Our school districts should be equal partners in determining what our schools and students need and whether or not things are working or need to adapt, it’s time for reform,” McGory said.

McGory noted the extended timelines in the House version of the bill are beneficial and give districts and AEAs time to work together on plans going forward. However, what really won him over is the financial authority that comes with the legislation.

“If our district has control over the funds that go to the AEA, we are going to be able to provide more services rather than less services,” McGory said.

Superintendents from Council Bluff, Greene County, Okoboji, and Spirit Lake shared similar remarks about wanting more say on how AEA funds are used, but some speakers pushed back on this by noting the consortium model is what funds equal access to AEA services for large and small districts.

One of those speakers who raised that point was Hubbard-Radcliffe School Board President Jacob Bolson, a self-described “deep conservative and man of Christian faith.”

“This rushed policy will harm students the most at small schools and rural areas such as mine,” Bolson said. “When a family of four non-English speaking children spontaneously arrives at our elementary school in Radcliffe, who do we call for help?

“Today, we can immediately tap into AEA resources because they are available by the consortium operations model and that would be gone with this plan because the agility is removed with the pay-per-service model.”

Bolson also poked holes in the Guidehouse report Reynolds’ office commissioned that kick-started all of the AEA reform talk this legislative session. Citing a column by former Iowa Department of Education Director Ted Stidwell, Bolson said the report was “riddled with misleading information or statistics that have been positioned to paint the AEAS in a manner that is in a negative light.”

“As an elected official in a small, rural school, I have yet to understand what the problem is that the governor and the legislature are trying to solve—and this includes the latest revisions to the bill that was released last week,” Bolson said.

  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.

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