AEA reform, tax rollbacks topics at Coffee and Conversation

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Feb. 12—OSKALOOSA — Education was once again put under a spotlight at Saturday's edition of Coffee and Conversation at Smokey Row.

Local residents heard from school administrators from all over Mahaska County. Oskaloosa, North Mahaska, Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont and Oskaloosa Christian schools were all represented on Saturday's panel, which covered issues ranging from school shootings, to Area Education Agency reform, to teacher retention.

Mahaska County educators talk school safety

The panel kicked off by responding to a community member advocating for the implementation of metal detectors to prevent guns being brought into schools.

"It's a scary time to live, and we acknowledge that," said Oskaloosa Community Schools Superintendent Mike Fisher. "I know we are doing just tremendous things in terms of school safety. Things that I just couldn't believe, when I went to school here, that we didn't practice for. And it's amazing that we have to practice now, which is unfortunate, and just an awful place to be. But you know, we compare it to we used to have to do duck-and-cover drills with the Cold War, now we do these run drills, and hide drills and different things."

Fisher said he didn't "have a great answer" regarding the use of metal detectors, but that Oskaloosa Community School District is always looking to implement best practice when it comes to school safety. Currently, he said, the district is looking at improving security at the entrance to the middle school.

Recently, EBF schools visited OCSD to observe their safety drills. EBF Superintendent Scott Williamson says school safety is "a learning process."

Williamson told the crowd that EBF received a STOP grant in the amount of $400,000 a few years ago through the STOP School Violence Act of 2018, and has been using the funds to create safety protocols. The school safety process is collaborative and ongoing.

"We work very closely with Mahaska and Wapello county. They have now become a part of the drill process," Williamson said.

Tim Veiseth, of North Mahaska Schools, echoed Williamson.

"I just want to say, our partnership with Emergency Management has been monumental in moving us forward with this ... Mahaska County has been phenomenal to work with in helping us set up North Mahaska so that we can have some of the safety measures that we do," he said.

Panelists urge slower pace for AEA reform

The panel addressed Gov. Kim Reynolds' proposed Area Education Agency reform legislation, a hot topic across Iowa since Reynolds announced it as a priority during her Condition of the State address on Jan. 9.

Among the measures proposed in the latest draft of the bill is giving schools the option to keep part or all of the flow-through government funding that currently automatically passes through districts to the AEAs. The bill has drawn a mix of support and concern, with naysayers arguing that without all of the flow-through money going to the AEAs, special education in Iowa will suffer.

OCSD Board of Education President Charlie Comfort said he believes it's fair to take a critical look at the effectiveness of AEAs, but that he is concerned that the governor's approach is moving too quickly.

"From our perspective in the Oskaloosa School District, when you have a system like the AEA that's been around as long as it has, I think it's fair to say that after so many years, perhaps there are some things that need to change," said Comfort. "I think, from my perspective, we are concerned about the pace of the legislation and the amount of speculation that has been about it."

The panel encouraged the crowd to contact their legislators and ask them to slow the process down.

Panel discusses implications of state tax rollbacks

The panel also fielded a question about how tax rollbacks on residential land and farmland would affect their upcoming budgets.

School district taxing authority is determined by student population. The funding rate per student is multiplied by the number of students at a school to determine the amount of funding a school will get through government funds and taxing authority.

Williamson spoke to the issue, saying that if lower property valuations combined with a decrease in enrollment, a higher tax rate might be on the horizon.

"If we have a significant decrease in enrollment, also with a lower property valuation, you're probably going to have a little higher tax rate to meet that [per student] threshold," he said.

Williamson also addressed instructional levies, which are mechanisms schools can use to raise an additional 10% of their regular operating costs through property tax and income surtax.

"If you have property evaluations rolling back quite a ways, and don't forget, we've also reduced the income tax, especially within the next three, four years in the State of Iowa, and that is a surtax, so it's actually a tax on what you pay in income tax, we're probably going to see some small increases in billing to get to that point," Williamson said.

"There's a lot of unknowns going on," he added. "But because of the rollbacks, to raise the same amount of money that we were operating before, you're guaranteed, I would guess, to see some upticks here and there. But also, we recognize valuations, even though they're rolling back, they're continuing to increase in the State of Iowa and most places."

The next Coffee and Conversation will be on Saturday, Feb. 24 at 8:30 a.m. and will feature Sens. Ken Rozenboom and Adrian Dickey, and Reps. Helena Hayes and Barb Kniff-McCulla.

Channing Rucks can be reached at