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Cuts Foreseen in Iowa Schools If Spending Freeze Approved

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As the farm crisis swells Iowa's budget deficit, Gov. Terry Branstad is proposing a freeze on state spending for fiscal 1987, just three months after he imposed a 3.85 percent across-the-board cut in current spending.

The plan, which includes a ban on local property-tax increases, would most likely force many school districts to reduce teaching staffs and educational services, according to state officials.

Appropriations for elementary and secondary education would be frozen at $743 million, the 1985-86 level before the Governor ordered emergency reductions Sept. 18. Also, certain programs would be terminated, such as assistance for foreign-language instruction, and schools for the deaf and the blind would be consolidated.

Proposed expenditures for the state's colleges and universities would be capped at $20 million below this year's level. As a result, a new "excellence in education" effort would have to be funded by reallocating appropriations from other programs, said Reg Harrington, a budget analyst in Iowa's legislative fiscal bureau.

In unveiling the proposals, Governor Branstad ruled out a tax increase to cope with a projected $107-million deficit, saying it would injure the state's already depressed economy. "We are now facing an economic crisis like I've never seen in my lifetime," he said.

Income from crops is down 11 percent throughout the Midwest this year, according to the Federal Reserve Board. About 40 percent of Iowa's farmers "face some sort of debt problem," Mr. Harrington said, and "the farm-price scene is bleak" for the foreseeable future.

The Republican Governor is also said to be mindful of growing tax-revolt sentiment in the state's rural areas. But his austerity plan has met with a cool reception in Iowa's Democratic-controlled legislature.

An aide to Lt. Gov. Robert Anderson, a Democrat, described the plan as "dead on arrival." Mr. Anderson, a former high-school teacher who will soon announce his bid to unseat Governor Branstad next year, was especially critical of the Governor's proposed restraints on education spending.

The Governor's reorganization plan "fails to address the main pressing need in education in Iowa today," Mr. Anderson said through the spokesman. "His proposal to eliminate [aid for] foreign-language studies and grants to students who emphasize studies in math and science is directly contrary to our duty as a state to improve the quality of education."

Bill Sherman, a spokesman for the Iowa State Education Association, said that by relying on spending reductions alone--rather than incorporating tax increases or reforms--the Governor's plan takes a shortsighted approach.

"If education is continually cut, we're going to destroy the one selling point [Iowa] has to attract industry--educational excellence," he said, noting that fiscal restraints since 1980 have reduced the number of teaching positions statewide.

Iowa's median teacher salary of $20,934 in 1984-85 was 31st in the nation, down from 28th the previous year, Mr. Sherman said. By contrast, the median is $25,450 in neighboring Minnesota, which faces similar budgetary problems, but "is willing to upgrade teaching salaries and maintain teacher morale," he added.

Raises for isea members now being negotiated will average about $1,000 this year--less than half what Minnesota teachers will receive--"if we're lucky," the union spokesman predicted.

M.J. Dolan, an aide to Governor Branstad, denied that the 1987 budget proposal would necessarily mean cuts in teaching staff and per-pupil expenditures in each of the state's 439 districts.

"Everyone throughout Iowa is going through a very difficult time and the school boards have done a very good job managing their resources," Ms. Dolan said, adding, "It will be up to them to decide individually" how to cope with the reductions.

While local tax increases would be ruled out, she noted, voters could approve a special school levy under certain circumstances. Also, many districts have a cash reserve account worth up to 5 percent of their budgets, said Mr. Harrington of the legislative fiscal bureau.

The Governor decided to curtail state grants to promote student interest in languages, mathematics, and science because these programs have accomplished their purpose, Ms. Dolan said. In 1985, 28 percent of the state's secondary-school students were enrolled in foreign-language classes, compared with 18 percent three years earlier.

But the Lieutenant Governor's aide, Darrell Frye, argued that trading one "educational excellence" effort for another makes little sense. He criticized Governor Branstad's proposal to sell WOI-tv, a state-owned station used by journalism students at the University of Iowa, to pay for other academic programs.

Freezing local budgets would remove school boards' ability to cope with unforeseen expenses, such as colder-than-expected winters, Mr. Frye said. "The freeze in assistance to local schools," he added, "will result in fewer teachers, larger class sizes, and it will slow down collective bargaining."

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