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Iowa Senate approves boost to school funding

DES MOINES (AP) — The Democrat-controlled Iowa Senate on Wednesday approved a $187 million plan to boost school funding for the coming school year, despite Republican Gov. Terry Branstad’s request that lawmakers pass his education reform plan before dealing with general support.

Under the plan approved by the Senate, state support for schools would increase by 4 percent, or $135 million, and money would be allocated from a budget surplus fund to prevent local property tax hikes for schools.

“Four percent is what they need in order to do their duty to their kids,” said the plan’s sponsor Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, who said that without this funding for supplies, facilities and teachers, schools may have to make cuts such as layoffs. “Our children deserve it, our school districts need it.”

But it may be tough for Democrats to get support for the package in the Republican-majority House, especially because Branstad has made clear he wants lawmakers to deal with his reform plan before setting overall funding levels for schools. Branstad’s plan raises minimum teacher salaries and provides incentive bonuses to some educators, as well as making other changes.

Branstad’s spokesman Tim Albrecht said in a statement Wednesday that lawmakers “should act quickly on these broad, bipartisan reforms before devoting another dollar to a system that has trapped our kids in the middle of the pack. “

During Senate debate, Republicans argued in favor of holding off on school funding until after dealing with Branstad’s proposal.

“We need to know what we’re going to put into this reform package, before we proceed with allowable growth,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Red Oak.

An emotional Quirmbach said that without speedy passage of this legislation, schools can’t plan for next school year.

“If you think we can delay any longer to set allowable growth for next school year, you’re not listening to your superintendent,” Quirmbach said.

Iowa schools are funded through a combination of state support and local property tax dollars, with the state providing nearly 90 percent of the money. School funding is distributed on a per-student basis to local districts.

When the Legislature and governor increase funding for schools — also known as setting the allowable growth rate — it triggers a matching hike for local districts that is typically filled by increasing local property taxes. The legislation approved Wednesday by the Senate would require the state to provide extra funding so local districts don’t have to raise taxes.

Branstad wants to change the school funding formula so that an increase by the state would not translate into a local property tax hike.

School funding is supposed to be set more than a year in advance. But lawmakers ended their 2012 session without establishing school funding levels for the 2013-2014 school year.

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