The start of a school year always seems hopeful, like turning a fresh page or wiping a slate clean. New plans of action are drawn up, and everything looks possible, even likely.
Adding to the spirit of renewal this fall are statewide school board elections scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 8. In the Perry Community School District, six candidates, including two incumbents, are vying for three at-large seats, and all have made statements showing their care and concern for the success of our local schools.
District voters will cast their ballots at the McCreary Community Building, 1800 Pattee St. in Perry, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday.
At the same time, the recent course of funding for Iowa’s public schools might seem to dampen some of the enthusiasm of the new school year. Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad’s line-item veto of $55.7 million in funding for the 2015-2016 year, announced over the Fourth of July holiday, was harshly criticized by educators across Iowa, including in Perry.
“I can’t tell you how disappointed I am with the leadership of the state government,” said Perry High School Principal Dan Marburger after Branstad’s veto. “Never before have I felt that the whole of education is under attack as it is with this governor.”
The anger and frustration were plain in the voice of the 20-year veteran of the Perry school system, and Marburger turned his sarcasm against the perceived hypocrisy of the governor’s excuse for the cut.
“The governor made a budget point,” he said, “by short changing kids and then did so on a holiday weekend so he didn’t have to take questions. A gutless move. I’m sure the state has turned down ‘one-time’ grants from the Feds on a regular basis. I bet the governor turned in his ‘one-time’ stimulus money years ago also.”
Clear Creek Amana Community School District Superintendent Tim Kuehl noted the one-time funding slashed by the governor “could not be used for salaries, but it could be used for transportation expenses, and it could be used for instructional materials. In my mind, that does sort of take the air out of the governor’s argument, because it could’ve gone toward one-time expenses” and not been put toward recurring expenditures.
Perry Community School District Superintendent Lynn Ubben said she had plans for the funding but seemed to take its loss in stride.
“We were feeling pretty good about being able to update some curriculum and supplies with that one-time funding,” Ubben told a Des Moines television station.
Other educators around the state were more pointed in their disapproval. “Our schools are hemorrhaging,” Waverly-Shell Rock Community School District Superintendent Ed Klamforth told a Waverly reporter. “The veto means cuts to textbooks and technology, and it means I will have categorical funds for lead teachers but fewer teachers to lead.”
Mid-Prairie Community School District Superintendent Mark Schneider called the governor’s good faith into question. “It’s very disappointing to me that the governor vetoed the compromise school funding bill as passed by the legislature,” Schneider said. “The 1.25 percent increase in state funding that was approved doesn’t even keep up with last year’s inflation rate. This veto will hurt students across Iowa and will deplete already rapidly dwindling reserves for many school districts. If the governor was so opposed to one-time funding, I don’t understand why he didn’t let Republican and Democrat leaders know during the time this compromise was being worked out.”
Some observers claimed Branstad used his line-item veto deliberately to become the lightning rod on the school-funding debate, doing for his fellow party members in the Republican-controlled Iowa House of Representatives what they were politically afraid to do for themselves.
Perry native Scott Heldt, who recently announced his candidacy for the Iowa House of Representatives District 20 seat, was a clerk in the state’s lower house during the 2015 session, and he had a front-row seat at the horse trading behind the compromise education funding bill.
“It’s all one political move,” the 26-year-old Perry High School graduate said. “The House Republicans dug themselves into a hole at one point, with a 2.5 percent increase over two and a half years, and they’re using Gov. Branstad as the cop out essentially in order to be re-elected. He’s the one who vetoed the $55.7 million, but in hindsight they’re still underfunding education at the end of the day regardless if they get the $55.7 million compromise.”
Education is one of Heldt’s passions, and it forms a central plank in his campaign against five-term Republican incumbent Clel Baudler, 76, of Greenfield.
Education is “why I’m running,” Heldt said at the start of an education rally he held Sunday at the Hotel Pattee in Perry. After graduating from Perry High, Heldt went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in public policy and ethics at the University of Iowa, also picking up a certificate in business entrepreneurship along the way.
“As a young professional with a fresh perspective,” he said, “my top priority will be to restore Iowa’s educational excellence through adequately investing in our youth. We have seen and heard enough of a two-and-a-half year stalemate over education funding. I’m proud of the education I received from Perry Community Schools, and depriving our youth of the same opportunity to succeed and compete in an ever-growing international job market is detrimental to our communities and state. Continuing to create pathways for success is essential for our children to choose their own future.”
Heldt opened his speech at the education rally by noting the start of the school year and saying it is “important that we bring up the issues that a lot of kids are going to be facing this year in all our schools, and not just kids but their teachers, too.”
First among the issues was funding. He said the Republican mania for budget cutting does not make sense at a time when Iowa has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the U.S. and the economical outlook is positive. Squeezing school funding also puts an unfair burden on teachers, he said.
“We carry a very, very lean budget, almost anorexic, and they’re really having to work,” Heldt said. “A lot of teachers put in their own dollars to make this thing work, to make their kids see a better future, and it’s something we really need to address. We have a $1 billion surplus, which looks good on paper, but everyone here is paying more in property taxes because we failed to utilize those funds to help pay for our schools. And that’s not right. Those aren’t my priorities. If we’re going to provide opportunities for our kids, then we must responsibly have the foresight to use some of those funds to move us forward. That’s really what we’re doing here, making sure that every child has the opportunity to succeed.”
Heldt compared the present state of the Iowa Legislature’s support for public schools with the situation when he attended PHS.
“The Perry school system was phenomenal for me growing up,” he said. “You got to try a little bit of everything, which you don’t get in a lot of bigger towns. I was lucky enough to have a very supportive family, but a lot of kids don’t have that. So when we dive into education funding and talk about where these dollars are going, some of the families across Iowa that are in a similar situation to mine just don’t have the resources to provide a solid home life that encourages education, and that carries over into the schools as well.”
During college, Heldt volunteered at after-school programs in North Liberty,
Iowa, where he said he saw the challenges faced by youngsters and their low-income parents.
“When you see education funding get slashed in the state of Iowa, it makes you question what people’s priorities are,” he said. “We’ve seen the House majority and our governor make a mockery of our foundation in education. I don’t mean to be offensive, but it’s the truth. We can’t continue to run so lean.”
Education is not Heldt’s only issue. He worked during the 2015 legislative session for Rep. Nancy Dunkel, the Dyersville Democrat and ranking member of the Economic Growth Committee of the Iowa House. He said exposure to the legal side of economic-development issues complemented his own training in entrepreneurship.
He has also volunteered with the Iowa Renewable Energy Association, helping to promote renewable initiatives throughout the state. Heldt said this volunteer work and his work with Dunkel on the House Agriculture Committee have taught him a lot about environmental issues in Iowa and their bearing on Iowans’ quality of life.
But education was the theme of Sunday’s rally, attended by about 20 friends and family members, and Heldt seemed well armed with the facts, especially about the effects of meager school funding on Perry schools.
“It’s very important that schools like Perry have the funding for ELL,” Heldt said, referring to the Perry school system’s English Language Learners program, which helps bilingual students reach the same goals as their native-English-speaking peers.
“Between 15 and 30 percent of all kids that go to school in Perry have been in ELL at some point in their lives,” Heldt said, noting his own 2008 graduating class was half Latino, and “a lot of them went in and out of ELL. It was such a great resource for them when we had funding, and we had great teachers.”
Heldt praised the recent performance improvements seen in Perry’s public schools, but by cutting funding, he said, you lower students’ rate of high school graduation and also reduce the rate of their entrance to colleges and trade schools.
“When you under-fund programs, Perry’s schools and our wonderful teachers’ effectiveness in reaching out to students diminishes,” he said. “It’s not sustainable. You can’t put too many students in a classroom and expect the same results.”
At 14 months out from the 2016 general election, there was little cause at Sunday’s rally for partisan rhetoric. Heldt said observing the legislative process at first hand this year led him to conclude the “House majority is very inefficient, unorganized and ineffective,” but he spoke respectfully of Clel Baudler, his Republican opponent, reserving his criticism for what he called Baudler’s inaction of education funding.
“There’s a guy in the seat now who has failed to do anything to move us forward since 2010,” Heldt said. “That’s the last time that we passed allowable growth in the state of Iowa to keep up with inflation.” The allowable-growth rate for public school funding is calculated using a formula for the percentage increase of the state per-pupil cost.
Campaign events are usually more than mere opportunities for serious discussion, and Heldt’s rally was no exception. Along with the generous supply of crackers and cheese and fresh fruits and vegetables supplied by the Hotel Pattee, voters were entertained by folk songs sung by Heldt’s campaign manager, Ruth Lapointe of Des Moines.
Lapointe, accompanied on guitar by her boyfriend Jacob, said word is getting around about the Heldt campaign, and voters are starting to respond throughout the district.
“Scott has some great ideas,” Lapointe said. “We’ve been friends since college, and I have seen his thinking be really enriched by his experiences. He’s got the fresh ideas and forward-looking vision this district needs.”
“I can’t think of a better community to give back to,” Heldt said of his hometown. “This race excites me.”