Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
WELLMAN — The Mid-Prairie school board invited State Representative-elect Heather Hora and State Sen. Dawn Driscoll to a work session Monday night, where the education officials sought to touch base with their newly elected legislators.
The conversations were especially salient given Hora’s assignment to the House’s education committee, and Driscoll’s expectation that she would also focus on education this term.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if I would be on the education committee,” the state senator said. “In the Senate, there’s not a ton of people that have kids in high school, or in elementary or Junior High. I do feel like I have a good pulse on what’s going on in the communities and in the school systems.”
The topic of private school vouchers — or scholarships, in the words of Driscoll and Hora — came up early. School board President Jeremy Pickard said he worried about a lack of transparency for private schools.
“We get held to a certain level of accountability level because of the school dollars and the funding that we use,” Pickard said. “I just want to make sure that, if the resources do end up going to someone else, they end up getting held to the same standards.”
Driscoll previously voted in favor of the voucher bill, which ultimately failed to pass. She said her reasons to support it where unrelated to the private education funding, however.
“My number one reason that I voted for that last year was the operational administrative share cost program,” she said. “You can share superintendents, you can share athletic directors and things like that, and that was set to expire. That was in that bill, and I wasn’t sure how some of our really, really small schools … would be able to afford their own superintendent.”
Driscoll said she wasn’t sure where she’d stand on a voucher bill this session, with bill components and exact funding not yet clear. She did, however, say she saw minimal funding concerns from the previous voucher bill.
“It was only going to apply to, I want to say … 3% of students would have applied for that, and you have to be at a 400% poverty level to have access,” she said. “What it will look like this session could be completely different.”
Hora will be a first-time legislator at the start of next term, and advocated in favor Reynolds’ voucher program on the campaign trail. She did not comment on vouchers Monday night, however.
Teacher retention was also a hot topic at the meeting.
“There are many school districts that don’t have all of their staff,” said one person who attended the work session. “I don’t know what your guys’ plans are for that, but what are ways we can continue to get people in education and keep them? Because we have all these schools in Iowa that don’t have full staff.”
Driscoll said legislators needed more data on the subject.
“There have been lots of studies on what makes someone leave, especially a rural school district,” she said. “We’ll see what we can come up with this year. As far as assistance, I don’t know what that plan looks like … but they’re looking into it. And the only thing I know is it’s not just in education.”
Hora said she disagreed with early retirement programs used by many districts, citing Washington’s recent incentive options to cut down on staff costs.
“I think that’s a silly thing to do when we have a teacher shortage,” she said. “Give them a bonus to stay, rather than money to leave. I’m not sure why it is that they do it that way, but that will be a question that I need to ask.”
In the last year, Iowa launched the Teacher and Paraeducator Registered Apprenticeship (TRPA) program, in an effort to train high school students as paraeducators, and get paraeducators fast-tracked teaching certificates. The program aimed to address teacher shortages, but District Business Manager Jeff Swartzentruber said it didn’t work.
”To say that it has been the biggest disappointment to us would be an understatement,“ he said. ”There are holes in the system, the amount of time we’ve spent to service six apprentices this year is unbelievable … think about all the hoops we have to jump through for a small amount of dollars.“
Schools still supported apprenticeship-based solutions but simply couldn’t deal with TRPA’s red tape, according to Superintendent Brian Stone.
“Its intent is really good,” he said. “It’s beneficial, there’s no argument of that … it sounds great on paper, but how we get there, that’s always the challenge.”
While school and state officials at the meeting danced around the topic of funding, both legislators said they’d favor increased attention on public-private partnerships in education, pointing to the success of a recent student-built house in Kalona that worked through the schools.
Driscoll said it would help prepare students for work in the trades, rather than exclusively focusing on higher education.
“So many of these businesses, they want to be a part of it because they can get those kids interested,” she said. “So many schools don’t have ag programs, welding classes, things like that. If we can get the kids, in high school, to say, ‘This is something I’m interested in,’ … it’s really important, and I think it’s vital for all of us in rural Iowa to have those kinds of things.”
As the meeting concluded, both state officials pledged to remain accessible to school officials. Driscoll said she reached out to schools whenever possible for decisions on education.
”I include every single school, I do a conference call, and I’m like, ‘This is what’s coming forward,’ and I take what you guys say into how I vote,“ she said. ”I appreciate your feedback, I am not an expert, I’m not on a school board right now, and I just think it’s very important that you realize we’re here for you.“