Members of the Edgewood-Colesburg, Maquoketa Valley and West Delaware school boards were invited to sit down with Representative Lee Hein (House District 96), Senator Dan Zumbach (State District 48) and Senator Michael Breitbach (State District 28) Dec. 12 for a joint work session.
Board members led a conversation with the three men about a range of issues in Iowa schools, including school funding, mental health, and more.
Donna Kunde, a member of the Maquoketa Valley School Board, opened the conversation by listing a number of priorities that Iowa school districts feel are the most urgent. She listed mental health, school funding policies, supplemental state aid and the SAVE program as the top four priorities.
Breitbach was quick to share his opinion on per pupil-funding inequality, stating that transportation is a huge cost for rural districts. He hopes to transfer transportation costs out of the general fund budget, and into its own in order to make per-pupil costs more equal across the state.
“It takes a lot of money to get the students the help they need in per-pupil funding,” noted Hein.
Mental health was a large focus of the meeting. “We as school districts are in desperate need of help,” stated Kunde, “because we cannot expect our teachers to be experts in mental health.”
“It’s at this age we can expect change from them,” said West Delaware School Board President Ed Poynor. He stressed the need to help children from a young age, while they have a greater potential to change. “It is more cost- effective to do it now than years later.”
Dr. Kristen Rickey, West Delaware superintendent, also weighed in on this topic. “This is a massive issue,” she began. “The need is there in every district I have talked to. I’ve gone to the Department of Human Services (DHS) with desperate cases. They turned me down and sent me to the juvenile court system. The court system turned me down and said to talk to DHS. We need a statewide mental health system. It’s bigger than schools. We can’t wait until 2020.”
Breitbach was the first to respond to this issue, noting the difficulty of the dilemma. “I think we’re making progress, but it takes a long time to redesign the mental health system.” Breitbach shared his support for local mental health services, and the need for an increase in mental health professionals.
Zumbach agreed with Breitbach, adding, “It really is that complicated. It really is that expensive. There’s not a simple answer to a very complex issue.”
Rickey then opened up the conversation about the importance of the SAVE (Secure an Advanced Vision for Education) funding. Money from this program is to be used for school infrastructure needs. Rickey gave each senator and representative a packet of pictures of the many repairs needed at the West Delaware district. “It’s pretty shameful the condition that everything is in,” said the superintendent, noting molded carpet, cracked walls and sidewalks, and asbestos-laden floors. “SAVE allows us to give our students what they deserve.”
In response, Zumbach noted the increase in support for the program. “Rural districts are strapped so much more because of declining enrollment. From what I’ve seen, there is stronger support for SAVE than in the past.”
Breitbach brought up the need to ensure proper usage of SAVE funds, referencing a state-of-the-art football stadium that was built in Iowa with the money. “We wanted to put protections so that SAVE wouldn’t be used for that sort of thing,” he said. “I think we were close last year, but we just couldn’t get it done.
Each district agreed that safety is an important issue in this day and age. Board members from Maquoketa Valley stated that secure entry is one of the top priorities for them with SAVE funding.
“Unfortunately in this day and age it’s a priority,” noted Maquoketa Valley Board Member Doug Dabroski.
Kunde agreed, “that’s where school districts are looking, and it’s not cheap.”
Finally, Maquoketa Valley Superintendent Doug Tuetken asked the senators and representative what school districts can do to facilitate change.
Breitbach was the first to respond. “Come to me and tell me what you need. Don’t expect me to fix it without telling me how it should be fixed. If I don’t know how to do it myself, I could make it worse,” he said. “I can’t handle 15 things thrown at me. But if I can make one thing easier, tell me what it could be.”
“This simple, positive, non-threatening person-to-person exchange really helps,” said Zumbach. “The needs are similar all around the area. This is where change comes from.”
Hein added, “Anybody can point out a problem. But it sure helps if we have a solution. The solution, actually sitting down and talking through it, helps a lot.”