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Iowa City school officials wary of possible Branstad proposal

BY CHASTITY DILLARD | FEBRUARY 01, 2012 7:20 AM

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Iowa City school officials say they are wary of Gov. Terry Branstad's financing plans for Iowa schools. 

Branstad announced on Monday his plan for Iowa education, which includes repealing allowable growth — a state budget limit on how much a school district can spend each year — to pave the way for possible education reforms.

The proposal would change how schools set future budgets. Instead of annually preparing for the following year, school officials said, planning would be slightly extended until the new Legislature sets the next two-year budget.

Current law requires lawmakers to set spending limits 18 months in advance.

Iowa City School Superintendent Stephen Murley said the delay would cause uncertainty.

"It'll be a cyclical process of a level of confidence followed by a period of no confidence," he said. "But the way schools are set up on short notice, we don't have the opportunity to make changes to the budget."

The longer wait means less time to allocate funding, he said.

"One of the things that we are working hard to do is making sure that we are very deliberate on our budget process," Murley said. "Knowing what our budget is far in advance is the prudent way to go."

Murley said because 80 percent of district funding goes toward personnel, a short notice on budget cuts would likely be cut from the remaining 20 percent — students' needs.

Brandstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said accurately predicting a budget 18 months beforehand is improbable.

"Passing a mere dollar amount may not be the best way to go anymore," he said. "It's not the model of predictability and stability the schools need."

Branstad wants to focus on prioritizing school funds toward specific programs rather than "throw the money at the schools and say, 'Here you go,' " Albrecht said.

The new system would make room for more education reforms, he said.

Iowa City School Board member Tuyet Dorau said the budget change could cause property taxes to rise.

The current 18-month period allows districts enough time to prepare, she said.

"If we don't know what the allowable growth is, naturally government municipalities will set a higher tax levy … on property taxes," she said. "I'm not saying that's what we are going to do, but I think it's a realistic strategy."

Dorau said school officials need to have enough time to manage the district's budget.

"Allowable growth is different from our actual budget," she said. "It's tied to the number of students that we have — that's why it's a percentage. It's inflation. When you don't have that ability to adjust for inflation, then you have the problem of having to dip into reserves."

School Board member Karla Cook said she doesn't support the potential change.

"I very much don't like the fact that [Branstad] doesn't want to give us that much notice," she said. "It's pretty hard for us to hire teachers and make plans if you don't have enough notice."


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