We have seen this movie; we know how it ends

rearview mirrorLast night, the Iowa Senate passed Senate File 159. The issue of Education Savings Accounts, or vouchers, will now go to the house, and if passed, the governor will sign a bill opening the door to steady drastic change. The time is now to consider the future of education in Iowa, and this has caused me to return to one of my very favorite books. The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge, has been one of the most important books in both my personal and professional life.

I see the world around me through a filter of systems thinking rooted in Senge’s work, and what is happening in our state has put a spotlight in my mind on a particular Law of the Fifth Discipline.

Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space. Senge (1990) wrote, “Often we are puzzled by the causes of our problems; when we merely need to look to our own solutions to other problems in the past.” Iowa is not the first state to package “school choice” as the solution to our educational problems. This means Iowans have a chance to travel this path with their eyes wide open. We still have an opportunity to avoid a future where our children and grandchild are wondering, how did this happen.

The state of Arizona started the Education Savings Account journey in the late-1990s with about $1 million of taxpayer money.  Today about $300 million of taxpayer money makes its way to non-public education programs and ventures. Iowa politicians and lobbyists have learned the same school choice playbook used in Arizona, Indiana, Louisiana, and other states from organizations like ALEC and Americans for Prosperity.  Let’s take a look at what we can expect in 25 years.

Arizona children sit in crumbling classrooms. Who is fixing them? This Arizona Republic article was published on February 3, 2020.

25 years from now, when Iowans are wondering why their local school is crumbling around their children, they won’t immediately recognize the link between their current state, and January 28, 2021, but if the governor’s efforts prevail, the link will be there.

This company says it’s ‘not a school’ and has no teachers. But it gets millions meant for charter, private schools. This Arizona Republic article was published on September 18, 2020.

25 years from now, when Iowans are wondering how taxpayer funds intended for educating children, are going toward stock dividends and CEO compensation, they will email and call their elected officials, but won’t automatically recall how Kim Reynolds, Brad Zaun, Amy Sinclair, and others invited profits before learning into our state.

With class sizes as high as 40 students, can Arizona schools keep kids healthy? This Arizona Republic article was published on May 18, 2020.

25 years from now, when Iowans are angry with local school boards and superintendents because of staff reductions and overflowing class sizes, a different generation of educators will be facing the consequences of the choices we are making today.

“Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions” (Senge, 1990).  Unfortunately, humans don’t naturally and automatically recognize root cause, and doing so becomes harder and harder with the passage of time. In Decorah Schools, we have a mission of Learning – Thriving – Creating Our Legacy. We intentionally call out Creating Our Legacy to heighten our awareness that we are the leaders of the systems in which we live and work. Our future is in our control, and the choices we make today ripple into the future farther than we can perceive.

There is still time to change our narrative. The Iowa House will take up Education Savings Accounts in the days and weeks to come. It is critical we recognize that what is happening at our statehouse is not a fixed moment in time. We are creating a future that will be inherited by our children and grandchildren.

25 years from now, I will be 73 years old. I will be retired and a different generation of superintendents will be meeting the challenges of the day. My hope today is that Iowans will take actions that allow those in the future to see us as ancestors who left a legacy rather than ghosts.

State Supplemental Aid Matters…A Lot

Back on October 1, 2019, I shared a blog titled Count Day Matters…A Lot.  In that blog I described the critical role student enrollment plays in school funding and budget development.

Today, I want to address another critical piece of the school funding formula, Annual Per Pupil Cost.  Each student enrolled in our district generates a specific amount of money.  For the 2019-2020 school year, that amount is $6900.00.  In order to maintain effective operations, and quality services for our students, it is critical that Annual Per Pupil Cost increases at a rate that keeps pace with the natural increases in our expenditures.  For example, when your electricity rates increase, our electricity rates increase; when you are spending more on gas, we are spending more on gas.

Setting a percentage increase for Annual Per Pupil Cost is a function of the Iowa Legislature.  Each year, the legislature sets a percentage increase for State Supplemental Aid (SSA).  That percentage increase is applied to the current Per Pupil Cost, and that new number allows school business managers and superintendents to begin the task of building a budget for the next school year.

The last five years have not enabled school district budget growth to keep pace with the natural increases in the cost of doing business.  The graph below shows the past 20 years of percentage increases in annual per pupil funding.  The graph also shows 15 years of five-year rolling averages.  You can see that the five-year rolling average is currently at the lowest point.  We have to do better as a state in providing this basic funding for our schools.

But Wait, I Read an Article About “Historic” Funding of Education

In recent years, Governor Branstad and Governor Reynolds, and the Iowa Legislature have talked about historic investments in education.  We hear numbers like $150 million dollars for Teacher Leaders and Compensation Programs, or “calling for $103 million dollars for education,” as mentioned in Governor Reynolds’ 2020 Condition of the State Address.  Unfortunately, many recent funding increases have been to categorical funds which can only be spent in certain ways.  These categorical increases reduce the local control of school boards, and can lead to significant surpluses in certain funds, while we struggle to have a General Fund that meets our basic needs.

While we appreciate the intent of the governor and legislature when they approve categorical funds, adequate increases to State Supplemental Aid empower local school boards and educators, and make the greatest difference in purposeful budget planning.

This year, School Administrators of Iowa, an organization of which I am a member, and the Rural School Advocates of Iowa, an organization of which our school district is a member, are calling for the percent increase to State Supplemental Aid to be set no lower than 3.75%.  I will advocate strongly with our elected officials for this percentage of growth, but your voices are what can truly make the greatest difference.

I encourage you to follow Parents for Great Iowa Public Schools.   You can find them on Facebook and Twitter.  They are a great source of information about how parents and community members can advocate for their local schools.

Additionally, I am always happy to talk with parents and community members about our local context, and how the actions of the legislature might impact our district.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for your support of Decorah Schools!

DCSD Condition of the District

Almost a year ago, I came to Decorah to interview to be the next superintendent of schools.  When I was invited to interview I was told I should be prepared to present an entry plan to the board of directors.  I could prepare a handout for the entry plan presentation, but I was told they did not want a Power Point presentation.  The handout I prepared began by communicating my purpose, and how I intended to present information back to the board about what was learned through deployment of the plan.

Since starting work July 1, I have engaged in a variety of activities designed to do what I told the board I would do during the interview process.  Earlier this month, I had an opportunity to have a mid-year check-in with our board members, and I shared a bone diagram capturing key elements of what I think I have learned.

On Wednesday, January 8, 2020, our Decorah Community School District staff met in the DHS Auditorium for a Condition of the District presentation.  We dedicated one of our late start Wednesday mornings to learning key information about who we are as a system.

I think it is important that our community be aware of these key desired outcomes as well.  Therefore, I invite you to watch a summary what was shared with staff using the video below.

Much of the work that is described in the video will be done in order to bring greater clarity to the shared why, how, and what of continually improving our Decorah CSD system.  As we do this work we will strive for transparency in our efforts, and to provide ongoing communication to you our stakeholders.

To that end, I am sharing a working document that is guiding our efforts to ensure we are creating a great environment for our employees to work, and for our students to learn.

Thank you for your continued support of Decorah Community Schools!

Count Day Matters…A Lot

Today is an important day in the annual cycle of Iowa public schools.  October 1 is our official student count day, and that means every public school district in Iowa is taking a count of students enrolled in their schools.  We are required to take this count today, and then to certify our enrollment with the Iowa Department of Education October 15.

The reason today is so important is because Iowa public school funding is driven by a per pupil funding formula.  In other words, we build our annual budget one student at a time.  Our budget for the 2019-2020 school year is based on the enrollment we certified last fall, October 15, 2018.  Our Served Enrollment last October was 1,692.2.  The served enrollment is a combination of our students who live in the Decorah Community School District boundary and attend one of our schools, open enrolled and tuitioned-in students attending one of our schools, and dual-enrolled homeschool students.

Decorah CSD certifies our enrollment with the Iowa Department of Education annually. Student enrollment is the primary driver of our annual funding.

As we take our count this year, we are establishing the Served Enrollment number that will generate our budget for the 2020-2021 school year.  When the time comes for our board to approve the 2020-2021 budget, we are required by Iowa Code to multiply our enrollment by $6900.00.  That $6900.00 is the Iowa Per Pupil District Cost, and it is generated annually by the Iowa Legislature.  The table below shows how the Iowa Per Pupil District Cost has changed over the past 20 years.

Iowa public school budgets are built through a formula established by Iowa Code. Annual student enrollment and per pupil cost are essential elements of the formula.

Iowa superintendents and school boards pay close attention to whether the annual enrollment numbers for their school district are declining, increasing, or holding stable because this trend is directly tied to whether the annual budget will increase, decrease, or remain stable.  Over the past 20 to 25 years, most Iowa school districts have experienced declining enrollment trends.  This is the primary driver of the consolidation of school districts across our state.  For example, in 2000 there were 374 school districts across Iowa, and today there are 327.

There are school districts in Iowa that are experiencing drastic growth in enrollment.  In the recent past, school districts in the Des Moines metro area, and the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids corridor have seen annual enrollment growth into the hundreds of students each year.

In Decorah, we have experienced stable enrollment over the past five years.  If you look closely at the annual enrollment chart above, you will notice our certified enrollment, or students who live in our school district boundary has decrease 2.4% over the past five years.  The stability in our served enrollment exists because of growth in the number of students open enrolled into Decorah Schools from other school districts.  The map below captures trends in enrollment changes across Iowa over the past five years.

Most Iowa school districts have seen declining enrollment over the past five years.

Today, Count Day, is a critical day in our budgeting and planning cycle.  Our  official Served Enrollment will generate about $25 million for the 2020-2021 school year.  The Decorah CSD Board of Education, our Director of Business Services, Cathy Dietzenbach, and I are committed to serving as highly effective stewards of taxpayer money.  Part of that work is open and transparent communication.  If you have questions regarding school finance, or annual budgeting in Decorah, don’t hesitate to reach out.  I am always happy to talk Iowa school finance.