February 28, 2024

Iowa legislator’s redacted letter from AEA staff is motivation for reform

Employees say administration grows while staff resources for special ed shrink

Iowa State Sen. Ken Rozenboom shows the redacted letter sent to him, the governor and the Department of Education from employees of an undisclosed AEA, telling them they would like to consolidate resources with another AEA and that while administration is growing the people resources delivering valuable services to individuals in special needs is shrinking.

Iowa State Sen. Ken Rozenboom of District 19 has in his possession a letter signed by employees working for one of the nine Area Education Agencies, and he says the contents of the correspondence, along with other factors, gives him reason to believe the administration of the AEA system deserves some scrutiny.

While sitting beside fellow Republican lawmakers Jon Dunwell and Barb Kniff McCulla of the Iowa House during a legislative gathering on Jan. 20, Rozenboom showed a brief glimpse of the letter, though any names that identified the employees or the specific AEA they worked for had been redacted.

The letter was addressed to himself, the governor, one of the AEAs and the Iowa Department of Education on Nov. 17, 2023. It was signed by “concerned staff” at an undisclosed AEA. The state senator and chairman of the Senate Education Committee read an excerpt of the letter that had been highlighted:

“We believe we would be better off consolidating our resources with another AEA. Our special needs population is growing and our people resources to deliver valuable services to students with special needs are shrinking. Yet our administrative resources continue to grow.”

Employees go on to say the unidentified AEA continues to be “ineffective due to absent leadership,” and they also go over a number of other concerns. While Rozenboom believes the concerns to be genuine, he acknowledged it could be an outlier of the nine AEAs in the state. But it’s not the only feedback he got.

About a decade ago, the Iowa Legislature commissioned a taskforce to review the AEAs, resulting in a 2011 report that Rozenboom said he received the night before the legislative gathering in the Newton Public Library. The 99-page report issued a number of recommendations to the structure and governance of AEAs.

According to the report, the taskforce classified the following as “high priority,” “moderate priority” and “remaining” recommendations:

HIGH PRIORITY

• Address issues of parity and statewide collaboration.

• Identify core services.

• Redesign, implement, monitor and evaluate the current system of service delivery in an effort to eliminate achievement gaps.

• Provide specialized support teams.

• Implement a statewide accountability system and steering committee.

• Change the AEA system to achieve 21st Century learning needs.

MODERATE PRIORITY

• Enable AEAs to generate additional funds in order to provide new services.

• Create efficiencies in AEAs through collaboration across the system and consolidation of AEA services.

• Maximize AEA/Department of Education collaboration.

• Improve AEA Board member effectiveness.

• Establish a statewide service plan process.

• Create a process to increase statewide collaborative efforts.

• Make changes to Iowa Code Chapter 273 and IAC Chapter 72 for the AEA accreditation process requirements.

REMAINING

• Restructure funding for AEA facilities and operations.

• Address the inequity in funding in state-funded special education.

• Fund AEAs through local property taxes.

• Improve flexibility in the use of the AEA media resource dollars.

• No recommendation regarding uniform reductions in appropriations.

• Increase transparency about administrative services and salaries.

• Retain the current AEA Board member selection process.

• Retain discretionary authority of the AEA Boards.

• Exploit informational and extralegal mechanisms in AEA governance.

• Continue AEA governance and its relationship with the Department of Education but review and revise it as necessary.

• Review the work of the AEA Boards.

• AEA Board should review compensation policies and processes.

In the report’s conclusion, the taskforce recognized that systemic change is an ongoing process and that the work does not end with the report finally published. It also said strengthening the AEA system will require a sustained commitment from the taskforce members and the entities they represent.

“It is the hope of the membership that the AEA system will be a model regional system of support, striving to do what is required to improve the capacity of schools and districts to serve the students of Iowa and prepare them for success in career, college and citizenry,” the report’s conclusion stated.

Coupled with the state’s “subpar” performance in special education — which was the governor’s motivation to reform the AEAs — Rozenboom reasoned it is time to take a hard look at the system. Hilary Foster, of Newton, asked if another study would be more beneficial to see where AEAs are at today.

“Rather than just pulling the carpet out from everyone,” Foster said.

Rozenboom responded, “I don’t think we’re pulling the carpet out from everyone. Maybe that’s where we’re off base.”

The state senator has frequently described AEAs as “administratively heavy and performance light.” Gov. Kim Reynolds said in her Condition of the State address that Iowa is spending $5,300 more than the national average for students with disabilities, but the state ranks 30th or worse on most national assessments, but those, too, have been called into question by critics.

“That’s unacceptable,” Reynolds said of the assessments.

Rozenboom agrees. In addition, he said the U.S. Department of Education has identified Iowa as “needs assistance” for implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). He presumed most Iowans do not want the feds coming in to fix the problem.

“We can talk about test scores or assessments or NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores all we want to, but we’ve been identified as ‘needs assistance,’” Rozenboom said. “And that carries with it some potential for the feds intervening in ways that none of us want.”

Stacy Simbro, a Newton City Council member, pleaded with legislators to help him understand why the AEAs needed to be restructured and to identify the benefits of such a plan. He also questioned the inefficiencies and then asked what services are not being provided. Consolidation isn’t always the answer, he said.

“Efficiencies look good but you have to prove you’re going to get efficient and prove what the problem is. My son is involved in this and I have greatly benefited from this service and think there is a lot of value to it … Help us understand the problem. Because I see this as a solution looking for a problem right now.”

Kniff McCulla said AEAs have been overlooked through the years. The agencies received “a pocket of money” and used it as they saw fit, she claimed. AEAs were created for special education, but they have since transformed into offering other services, too. Kniff McCulla said no one ever questioned it.

“Nobody ever asked,” she said. “The layers with the AEA, you’ve got one person that’s the main guy earning over $300,000-some and then you got another layer of a couple of guys and then you got another layer. When I talk to some of the small, rural schools … they didn’t even know what those other layers are.”

Simbro said, “OK, then let’s fix what’s wrong with it instead of an all-out reconstruction. Because this feels like a total overall of something we haven’t even been convinced it needs to be overhauled.”

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.