School board sends off legislators with support, concerns

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Spencer school board invited State House Representative Megan Hess and State Senator David Johnson to their regular board meeting on Tues. to discuss education issues in the upcoming legislative session.

At the forefront of the discussion was allowable growth, which has not yet been determined for the 2013-14 school year.

"Allowable growth is a big concern for us, both here and across the state," Spencer Superintendent Terry Hemann said.

While neither Hess nor Johnson could comment on the topic before the legislative session, they both agreed that whatever decision is made should be carried through.

"In the past years, the legislature has over-promised and under-performed," Hess said to the board. "It's not fair to schools."

"We can't give an opinion until we see the December revenues," Johnson said. "But whatever we decide, we need to see it through."

Each year, expenses rise about 4 percent within the school system. An ideal rate of allowable growth is also 4 percent, to cover the increased costs. This past year, however, yielded an allowable growth of only 2 percent. Years previous have yielded zero percent allowable growth.

"If it's zero, tell us it's zero," Board member Dean Mechler said. "We can plan accordingly."

"We have excellent teachers, and we've implemented programs that improve learning and comprehension among our students," Board President Bob Whittenberg said. "In order to keep these up, we need allowable growth."

The board and legislators also discussed the upcoming education reform bill that Governor Branstad plans on proposing during the legislative session. The bill will classify educators into five categories: initial, career, model, mentor, and lead. A teacher fresh out of college, or an "initial" teacher, uses their first teaching year as a resident year, spending half of their time teaching students and half of their time learning under the mentorship of a more experienced teacher. As the teacher gains experience in the classroom, they move up in their career, becoming mentors and advisors for younger teachers.

"The Governor's been working on this for two years," Hess said. "If it's passed, it's not something that will happen for a period of time and then fade out."

One concern of the district is how this reform will be funded. Whittenberg expressed his concern that the money to fund the reform will be repurposed from another area in education funding, and he urged the legislators not to support such an action.

"I have the feeling that one reason that allowable growth wasn't set for this coming year was so the money could be held for reforms," Hemann suggested in discussion.

Whittenberg also expressed his concern that the reform focuses too much on the role of teachers in the education system, and not enough on core standards or assessment.

"If we do this, we put all of our eggs in one basket," he said. "It's not just teachers that reform the school system. There are some huge gaps."

He noted that Iowa spends the least amount of money on assessment in the country. Iowa is also the only state that still uses multiple-choice as its only means of assessment.

He also noted that reclassifying teachers would also create the need for more teachers in the district, because the higher-level teachers would be spending less time in the classroom with students.

"Who's going to teach the kids if everyone is coaching and being an expert?" he said.

"I'm optimistic that there's positive change coming for education," Hemann said, "but I'm concerned about funding, as we all are."

Both Hess and Johnson acknowledged the need for more information before any decisions can be made, but they will go into the legislative session with motivation to do what is best for the district and for the school systems.

"There's still a lot lacking about the taskforce report," Johnson said, "and that's all we have to go off of right now."

"When we get to the legislative session in January, we'll be ready to work," Hess said.

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