Iowa House Rep. Jon Dunwell and State Sen. Ken Rozenboom both agree the Department of Education’s decision to post job openings for a new special education division one day after the governor announced a reform of the Area Education Agencies was “offensive” and “not smart.”
During a meeting with school board members to discuss legislation that will affect public schools this session, the tense conversation took a turn after a school board member accosted the actions of the Department of Education while going over the AEA proposal and teacher pay increases.
School board member Travis Padget started by questioning the sustainability of the increased teacher pay, particularly if school districts are to make up the difference at some point. Padget said the school district is not able to sustain it now, and neither will a 2.5 percent increase in Supplemental State Aid.
“We’ve heard 2.5 repeatedly and it’s not always been the case in my 11 years now on school board — almost the same time as you’ve been there (in the Iowa Senate),” Padget said to Rozenboom, who has served 12 years in the Iowa Legislature. “I just think there is a sustainability problem.”
Increasing the minimum starting pay for teachers to $50,000, he added, and then bringing up other teachers to comparable amounts could hurt school finances.
“Is that the cut of the AEA to fund those?” Padget asked.
School board member Liz Hammerly, who also works for Heartland AEA, said, “No, they’re going to move positions to the (Iowa Department of Education).”
“Right, because they’ve already applied. They’ve already started hiring.”
Rozenboom and Iowa House Rep. Jon Dunwell confirmed that, yes, the state Department of Education has already posted new job openings. To Padget, that tells him it is “a little bit veiled” or “backhanded” and “somehow they knew these postings were coming,” particularly when a bill had not even been passed yet.
The Des Moines Register’s Stephen Gruber-Miller reported on Jan. 11 that the Iowa Department of Education posted 29 job openings for a new Division of Special Education one day after Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds called for widespread changes to Iowa’s special education system and the state’s nine AEAs.
“I’m not trying to be negative or challenging, but that’s just kind of the things that we feel,” Padget said.
Rozenboom said, “I will be negative. That was not smart. I respect the governor, but that was not—”
“It looks like instead of smacking the hand of the Department of Education for not getting things achieved, we’re going to smack somebody else down the line. If we have nine AEAs they are all going to be different. But isn’t that the responsibility of the Department of Education to get them in line?”
Rozenboom was unsure the state department administrators had the authority to do that. Padget said they should. Rozenboom said perhaps that could be an option. Padget argued the AEA restructure feels like a punishment for not achieving and that lawmakers should focus on filling service gaps.
Hammerly circled back to job postings. Originally, she had an open mind for the AEA bill, especially if it meant more teachers and more associates. As a consultant of Heartland AEA, Hammerly serves 15 teachers, 197 students, five buildings and two districts.
“I get one day at Baxter, one day at Berg, three days I spend between Newton and WEST Academy, I had one day where I collaborated,” Hammerly said. “Today I was collaborating with a teacher for 30 minutes solving one paperwork issue … How does this proposal change what I’m able to offer?”
Hammerly sees more impact to improving student achievement across the state if lawmakers can get more boots on the ground.
“But I don’t see that,” Hammerly said.
Dunwell said lawmakers do not know what the amended proposal looks like just yet. But legislators are trying to get at the bottom of the issues with administrative positions in the AEAs. Dunwell said the governor wants to replicate those positions in the Department of Education down to about 140 positions from 400.
In conversations with his leadership team, Dunwell told them to give him the benefits of the AEA restructure bill.
“If we’re going to go from 400 down to 140 and we save money, does that mean that money can now go out for more Liz Hammerlys to be working with our special education teachers in school? If that is what happens, then you start looking at that being a very positive outcome,” Dunwell said.
From there the state could put more effort into helping special education teachers, he added.
“Please understand the Department of Education, which is an executive branch, advertising 30 positions — I’m going to say this boldly — was offensive to the legislature,” Dunwell said. “Because we had never seen a bill. We had no idea and it had not been approved. So, Travis, you are correct. That was an offensive move by the Department of Education.”