Phase I: Gone but Not Forgotten

This week five K-12 education organizations, including ISEA, issued a joint press release calling on Governor Culver to “exercise what authority he has to oppose the Legislature’s Phase I budget cut.”

The press release goes on the say that the over $13 million cut to Phase I was made in the waning hours of the last night of the legislative session. There is a lot of truth to what the education associations are saying.

(Click here to see the amount each Iowa school district lost as a result of the failure to fund Phase I)

But there are also many critical facts being left out. Responsibility for the cuts fall squarely in the hands of the House Democrats, Senate Democrats, and Governor Culver.

Here are a few “Facts to Know” and “Questions to Ask”:

Facts to Know

Fact 1. Phase I was eliminated 8 days before the 2009 legislative session ended when Governor Culver signed Senate File 445 into law.

Section 11 of SF 445 repealed the Phase I distribution formula and the $13.5 million yearly Phase I appropriation. The bill also required Iowa school districts to collectively bargain a new single salary “system.”

  1. All 32 Senate Democrats voted to eliminate Phase I on March 19, 2009. No Senate Republican voted to eliminate Phase I.
  2. All 56 House Democrats voted to eliminate Phase I on April 2, 2009. No House Republican voted to eliminate Phase I.
  3. Governor Culver eliminated Phase I on April 17, 2009, when he signed Senate File 445 into law.

Fact 2: House Republicans, on April 2, 2009, distributed to all 100 members in the House a spreadsheet showing the Phase I district-by-district loss that would happen as a result of the passage of SF 445. House Democrats voted for the bill anyway.

Fact 3: House Republicans objected to the loss of Phase I funds during the debate of SF 445. In fact, House Republicans were told during debate that the funding for Phase I would be included in the Standings bill.

Fact 4: House Democrats did not include any Phase I funding in Standing bill, SF 478. This omission was the second time the House Democrats rebuffed funding Phase I. House Democrats affirmatively eliminated $15 million in state funding for Instruction Support in the Standings bill.

Fact 5: House Democrats did not backfill Phase I with federal stimulus money in the Federal Block Grant bill, HF 820. This is the third time House Democrats refused to fund Phase I. They did, however, backfill 80 percent of the state cut to Instructional Support.

Fact 6: Democrat Leaders blame schools for laying off teachers but don’t fund Phase I. In a highly unusual move, on April 23, 2009, Democrat leaders Pat Murphy, Kevin McCarthy, Mike Gronstal and Jack Kibbie sent a letter to each of Iowa’s 362 school districts saying they were “disturbed” that the districts were laying off teachers because the federal stimulus money would “make school budgets whole again….” Apparently they weren’t disturbed enough. These same leaders adjourned the 2009 session two days later without funding Phase I.

Fact 7: Phase I was not due to sunset. Recently, a House Democrat erred when she told the press that Phase I was due to sunset in two years and that “the legislature just moved it up a year.” Phase I was NOT due to sunset.

Fact 8: Governor Culver’s options are now extremely limited. A property tax increase is a questionable answer. The School Budget Review Committee might be able to stretch Iowa law and grant districts the ability to backfill the dollars with property tax. Or maybe Culver can come up with a way to re-direct other stimulus dollars cover the Phase I loss.

Questions to Ask

It is rare that we use this newsletter to reprint a Letter to the Editor. The below letter, however, was sent by former Republican State Representative Mike Cormack to the Fort Dodge Messenger. The Messenger posted the letter on May 13, 2009.

Mike Cormack asks all the right questions.

To the editor:

When I left the Iowa House of Representatives, I went to work in a small rural Iowa school. Teaching and coaching young people has been an honor. I am writing today to declare my disbelief at Sen. Jack Kibbie, Sen. Daryl Beall and other rural Iowa Democrats voting at 3:30 in the morning on the last day of their legislative session to end Phase I education funding.

This cut hurts my school by reducing real teacher pay by more than $2,000 per teacher. It devastates districts like Southeast Webster-Grand and Rockwell City-Lytton in Beall’s district. The bulk of this cut hurts small Iowa schools. An example, due to the reduction of this funding, Phase I reductions per teacher at C&M, where I teach, is $2,048.04. The reduction to Council Bluffs per teacher is $55.81 cents, almost $2,000 less.

This was done with no committee work and no chance for public input. Here are my questions for Iowa legislative Democrats and Gov. Culver:

Is it good lawmaking to meet 20 straight hours and make decisions at 3:30 in the morning? To wipe out a $14 million education program?

Why did you allow no public input or advance warning on this? This program has been around since 1988 with no discussion of elimination.

Did you properly use federal stimulus dollars, which are intended to keep districts from laying off teachers?

Is it even legal to have inequities, such as a $1,200 per pupil reduction to Diagonal students and a $3 per pupil reduction to Cedar Rapids students?

How could you spend a record amount of money in a legislative year and still do this?

Why did you put party loyalty ahead of looking out for kids in small Iowa schools?

Why should a rural teacher take a $2,000 pay cut while an urban teacher is reduced less than $100?

My final question, how can you in good conscience ever step foot in a rural school ever again?

This is a horrible decision that hurts local taxpayers, kids and teachers. This wouldn’t have happened with public comment and good committee research. This is a goofy way to make public policy. Unfortunately, the loser in all of this is Iowa education.

Mike Cormack of Massena

Former Iowa state representative 1994-2002