Dear Governor Branstad,
It seems like you are feeling better these days. I’ve seen a few pictures of you signing bills with school kids around you. You looked good in them. The kids were smiling and that was nice. I was just checking in because I haven’t heard from you (actually I assumed I might hear from Ms. Fandel, as I know you don’t use email). I have had over 80,000 people read my letter to you online. I swear that I had no idea it would get out like that. I truly just wanted to share my thoughts with you about your funding proposal and to share my frustration that I couldn’t get any response from the legislative Republican leadership. What happened was a little shocking to me. Of those 80,000 viewers to my blog I had hundreds contact me. Most of them shared their frustration that Iowa’s politicians can’t come to a compromise on school funding. Sure, a few wanted to complain that teacher’s unions were lazy and greedy. I guess they are entitled to their opinion. It’s my experience that teacher’s unions, like most unions, are made up of hard working people who want to create the best possible conditions for their job environment. In the case of my teacher’s association, we work closely with our school board and administrators to try to make Johnston an attractive place to teach and learn. Seriously, that’s what we do. But, I digress.
In case you weren’t aware, school budgets have to be certified by April 15th. You might also be interested to know that the legislature was supposed to set school funding a long time ago. In my last letter I shared that the Democrats at the state house had proposed to cut the difference with the Republicans. Since my last letter I actually received a polite letter from Representative Paulsen that more or less said that legislative Republicans didn’t really have an interest in compromising. That’s too bad in my opinion. At the bottom of this letter are some numbers I thought you might be interested in from the Legislative Services Agency. They seem to imply that we could do more for our schools if we wanted to. So, it begs the question, do you want to do more for our schools?
Here’s the thing Governor. It feels to a lot of us that you want substantial changes to how education is delivered in Iowa, but you’re a little short on specifics. You (or at least your friends in the tourism industry) wanted to dictate the start to the school year, so you got that to happen (although I’m curious about why Republicans aren’t more interested in local control, but I digress again). But after that any details about how we do education better in Iowa are vague. I get that you want us to do it with resources that don’t keep up with inflation, but then what? I get that you think taxes are too high, and I’d sure like to pay less as well, but I also like to have a police force to keep me safe (and the police in my city are great, but underpaid), and I want my roads and bridges to be in good shape, and I want the best possible schools for my son. So, the truth is, I’m willing to pay for those things. Have you been paying attention to things in Kansas?
Can you sell me that this isn’t where we are headed? It seems to me that there are three options as the leader of our state. 1) You could listen to the educational experts in your state and fund our schools at a rate that helps us maintain the staffing and programs that our communities have come to expect. 2) You could provide us with a plan that make Iowa schools “World Class” as you fund them below the rate of inflation (which many of us believe is your plan to privatize education, a plan that has no track record of success anywhere). 3) You could just admit that you would rather cut taxes in a way that mostly help the wealthiest Iowans and admit that you are OK with our schools offering less to our young people. If there is a fourth option, I continue to invite you to put it on the table.
As school budgets need to be certified this week there will be cuts in our schools. Lots of cuts. You seem OK with that and that’s fair enough, but I’d invite you to actually go to a few of these schools and decide which teachers and programs are superfluous. I tell you what, as Johnston needs to make cuts, I am going to propose that you and I go into together and see what our community thinks of cutting our music program. It would solve our budget woes. I’m making this as a serious offer to you Governor Branstad. We can go in and propose deep cuts to our music program. I will offer my resignation and we can cut the band program to the bare bones. Let’s see how the people of Johnston react. It might give us some sense of how the people of Iowa feel about their schools. I am one of those members of the teacher’s union who is receiving an excessive salary and benefits (according to many). See, what I think might happen is that the community might be opposed to gutting of our music program. So then I would ask you to find where we cut instead? I bet you find that it’s not quite that easy, yet that is what is going to happen when the legislature doesn’t act.
I’m sorry to make this a Republican/Democratic issue, but sadly it is. Democrats have compromised and offered a funding proposal that they believe is less than we afford and yet better than the meager 1.25% you have proposed. By offering that proposal they have shown good faith in trying to listen to Iowans of all political parties. You and your Republican colleagues are listening to someone, but I’m not sure who they are. Maybe you are listening to those who are cranky that teachers make a living wage and have negotiated for health care instead of big salary increases. Maybe you are listening to wealthy Iowans who are enjoying the tax breaks that you are enacting. Maybe you are listening to those who want to privatize our schools. It’s hard to say because you don’t talk much about it. Well, to be fair, you talk about wanting world class schools a lot and promoting programs like STEM (which don’t come for free).
I’ll tell you what I want. I want our best and brightest young people to be excited to become teachers (but that, for good or for bad, includes making teaching wages competitive with good jobs in the private sector). I want time and resources dedicated to helping teachers implement high yield teaching strategies with fidelity and peer support (which requires time and resources that will disappear as funding dries up). I want our schools to offer a variety of activities that teach students how to be collaborative, how to be creative, and how to become leaders (these are the first programs to get cut when school budgets are pinched).
Iowa is running out of time Governor. Do what you are going to do (which at the moment appears to be nothing). But know that this conversation isn’t over. If you aren’t going to listen to the educational experts in Iowa, then tell us who we are supposed to listen to. You seem to know best. Tourism trumps local control. Tax breaks trump having adequate funds to maintain services. I hope it works out. But know that there are Iowans who want to talk about these things. If you are feeling good about what’s going on in Kansas then let us know that. It will help me to prepare for the future a little bit. And if you are interested to coming to Johnston and proposing some cuts to our school board, they meet this Monday night at 6 pm. I suspect you think I’m proposing a stunt when I suggest you and I go in and see what they think about gutting our music program, but I’m quite serious. I can get a lot of community members and students there to respond and let’s see what they think. You on board? I look forward to hearing you, although I won’t hold my breath.
Patrick J. Kearney, Music Educator, Johnston High School
KTVO received a press release from Assistant Minority Leader State Representative Mary Gaskill-
These numbers are generated by the non-partisan Legislative Service Agency (LSA) that provides information to the legislature and the governor for budgeting purposes. They are not from the Democrats, they are not from the Republicans, they are not from the Governor….they are from an independent agency that serves all of us – and they are the truth.
Fact 1: The revenue estimated growth this year is 6% or an increase of $408.1 million.
Fact 2: We have $7175.5 million in revenue and $319.1 million left over from last year, giving us a balance of $7494.6 million. By law, our 99% spending authority is $7422.6 million. That is the money available to appropriate for FY 16.
Fact 3: Our reserve funds are full, with $717.6 million in cash reserves and economic emergency funds, as required by law.
Fact 4: House Republican spending plan utilizes 96% of the 99% spending authority allowed by law and followed for of the last 20 years (except the last 4 years where less has been budgeted).
Fact 5: There are additional ongoing expenditure increases of $487.7 million for FY 16, however, we only funded $68 million of those ongoing expenditures in FY 15, and probably will not fund the entire amount in FY16.
Fact 6: 4% supplemental state aid (SSA) for education increase is $212 million.