Budgeting in the dark

The budget deadline is here, and schools don’t know how much they will be permitted to spend, how much of it will be state aid, or how much to levy in property tax.

April 15 is more than Tax Day. It’s also Budget Day, the date by which Iowa school districts are required to certify and adopt their budget for the year starting July 1.

And that’s important, because Iowa schools consider themselves bound by law.

This stands in stark contrast to the General Assembly. The Legislature and Governor, you see, have not told the school districts yet how much money they will have for this budget that must be set by Wednesday. By law, they’re about 14 months late … and counting.

You read that right. Lawmakers were supposed to tell school districts in February 2014.

If schools were really getting the “first bite at the apple,” as some are so fond of saying, this number would have been set. Instead, schools are left wondering how much of the core of the apple will be left when legislators finally get their act together.

Those first bites are already gone — to backfill property-tax cuts, or to provide giant subsidies to multistate corporations that pay no income taxes to our state, or to let millions slip through corporate tax loopholes while our Legislature looks the other way.

The budget deadline is here, and schools don’t know how much they will be permitted to spend, how much of it will be state aid, or how much to levy in the property tax share of that budget.

How, then, do districts respond?

The safest approach for school districts is to assume the worst. This will differ around the state; for many, it means no increase in state aid or per-pupil budget growth.

Because budgets are a mix of state aid and property tax, and you’re assuming no state aid increase, you’ll be setting a levy at its highest amount. If state aid comes in higher, you will lower your levy to the authorized amount — but your overall budget may still be too low to meet the needs you have identified.

While these little tricks keep your district within the law, they do nothing for the spirit of transparency, to enable everyone to be part of the process.

  • District residents don’t really have a clear picture of what their levy will be, so what can they expect to learn, or say, at the required public hearing?
  • District teachers and board members trying to negotiate contracts in good faith through the winter and early spring have no firm numbers to discuss.
  • District administrators trying to plan for fall classes may not be sure whether they will be able to keep current staff levels, or be able to add staff to meet increases in enrollment, special needs, or demands for achievement in cutting-edge fields of study.

All we know as April 15 approaches is that districts, one way or another, will meet the letter of the law. No thanks to state legislators.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
Editor’s Note: Mike Owen has been a member of the West Branch Community School Board since 2006.

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Author: iowapolicypoints

The Iowa Policy Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that provides research and analysis to engage Iowans in state policy decisions. We focus on tax and busget issues, the Iowa economy, and energy and environmental policy. By providing a foundation of fact-based, objective research and engaging the public in an informed discussion of policy alternatives, IPP advances effective, accountable and fair government.

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