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School-Aid Stalemate Spurs Reform Talk in Iowa

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For the second time in three years, the Iowa legislature has missed its deadline for setting the state's education budget.

The delay has stalled districts' planning for the next school year and angered some officials enough that they are calling for changes in budget laws.

The Democratic-controlled Senate has approved a 4.5 percent, $81 million increase in basic school spending for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The Republican-led House, however, is sticking to a plan backed by Republican Gov. Terry E. Branstad that would increase basic aid by 3 percent, or about $56 million, and earmark another $15 million to help schools acquire educational technology.

Governor Branstad has vowed to fight "till hell freezes over" for his plan, and he demanded that lawmakers commit to a 3 percent increase in each of the next four years in order to help keep a lid on government spending.

A 1992 law requires the legislature to come up with an education-spending plan 30 days after the Governor releases his budget--Feb. 9 this year. There is no penalty for missing the deadline, but if lawmakers adjourn without resolving their differences, spending will be frozen at current levels.

While the difference in the proposals comes to about $10 million of the state's $3.6 billion total budget, the real issue is who sets the legislative agenda, observers say.

State Rep. Steve Grubbs, a Republican who chairs the House education committee, said it is important to keep the technology money separate so that it does not end up in teacher salaries.

Playing Politics?

Indeed, some critics say the Governor is attempting to punish the Iowa State Education Association for endorsing his opponent in last year's election.

"We're playing politics with kids and education, and I think that's unfortunate," said Gary L. Wegenke, the superintendent of the Des Moines schools. The bickering is unnecessary, he added, as the state budget is projected to run a $265 million surplus this year.

As the stalemate drags on, districts are nearing the statewide April 15 deadline to submit 1996 budgets. Iowa schools get about 60 percent of their funds from state aid$1.2 billion last year.

"It's more than an inconvenience for superintendents and budget staff," Mr. Wegenke said. "It makes the budget process very soft at best."

In particular, the delay is affecting annual employee-contract negotiations, which determine the bulk of annual school spending.

"It's difficult to negotiate numbers when you don't know what they'll be," said Ron Livermore, a government-affairs specialist for the state teachers' association.

Some districts are using hypothetical numbers to advance the process, said Wayne R. Beal, the associate executive director of the Iowa Association of School Boards.

Mr. Wegenke noted that local officials--not legislators--will be blamed if downward adjustments must be made later.

Call for New Ideas

A growing number of officials in Iowa's education community are calling for more than a quick resolution to the current stalemate.

The school boards' association wants lawmakers to set spending rates two years in advance and to mandate two-year contracts with school employees.

The current process replaced a formula that automatically set funding levels. Superintendents knew by December how much aid they would get the next year.

Ron McGauvran, the president of the state board of education, was so angered by this year's delay that he suggested suing the legislature. But the idea received little support from the other eight board members, all of whom were appointed by Mr. Branstad.

But even critics like Mr. McGauvran are not suggesting that lawmakers return to the so-called "autopilot" method.

"We are looking at a forward-funding process with better predictability," said state Sen. Mike Connolly, a Democrat who heads the Senate education panel. "It would be sort of an automatic pilot with rigorous controls on the fuel."

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