FD caught in allowable growth limbo

The Fort Dodge Community School District is preparing its 2013-2014 budget, but one factor remains uncertain: allowable growth.

“Allowable growth is the way the state of Iowa gives money to schools,” Doug Van Zyl, FDCSD superintendent, said. “It’s based upon several different things on a very complicated formula, but it ultimately boils down to the way that the state gives money to school districts to meet reoccurring costs and increasing expenditures.”

In January, the Iowa Senate passed a bill calling for 4 percent allowable growth. The Iowa House countered with a bill allowing 2 percent growth in February.

Gov. Terry Branstad had called on legislators to pass his proposed education reforms – which include higher salaries and more leadership roles for teachers – before addressing allowable growth, which remains unresolved.

A law signed by Branstad in 1995 calls for growth rates to be set in the preceding year and that allowable growth should be the only subject matter of the bill which sets the rates.

“The challenge with all of this is that, by law, what they’re really supposed to be telling us is what next year’s allowable growth is,” Van Zyl said. “Because they’re not meeting the requirements of the law, we should have already known what this year’s allowable was last year. They’re supposed to tell you a year in advance.”

This uncertainty complicates how the district prepares its budget, which must be approved by the school board on April 15.

“We are working on an awful lot of assumptions from the state and nobody likes to work off assumptions,” Van Zyl said. “We’d rather be working off concrete facts and knowing exactly what our budget is going to be, rather than playing with so many unknown factors.”

The Fort Dodge school district board has approved an estimate for its 2013-14 budget based on 2 percent growth passing.

“That’s about $250,000 of new revenue that would come in to us for the general fund,” Van Zyl said.

General fund dollars, according to Van Zyl, are used for programming, teachers’ salaries, staffing and expenditures related to those areas.

But 4 percent allowable growth would be a more traditional figure. With it, the district would receive an additional $450,000.

“The past history of the state is that, for many years, it was 4 percent or a little bit above. Prior to my getting here, about 13 years ago, they were running double digits in allowable growth,” Van Zyl said. “And then, when they changed the funding, it’s interesting to see that’s also at the point when some of the changes in how the state started achieving academically compared to other states began taking place.”

If neither figure can be agreed upon, allowable growth will be set at the default figure of zero, Van Zyl said.

“That’s about $700,000 less,” he said. “It would be terrible.”

According to Van Zyl, the issue is not money. The issue is providing the highest quality education.

“You hate to have to build a budget and make some decisions when it comes to reductions or savings in programs and staff and turn around and find out, oh, we now get 6 percent allowable growth, which would have had a big impact on what we would have done differently,” he said.

The district has already had to make “numerous reductions” over the years.

“Now we’re at the point where you really are talking about people,” Van Zyl said. “There’s not a lot of extra in our budget in any way, shape or form that doesn’t impact staff or begins impacting students and programs.”