How some Iowa parents are threatening to defund schools over mask mandates

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Hundreds of thousands of dollars are at stake for a suburban Iowa school district Friday if incensed parents follow through with a plan to artificially lower the district's enrollment numbers.

Ankeny Community School District families angry over a new mask mandate are threatening to unenroll their children from school ahead of the state's Oct. 1 student count date.

The number of students enrolled in a district on that date helps set funding levels for the next school year.

As part of the plan, some parents would then re-enroll their children on Oct. 2, effectively forcing the district to educate their children with less money.

The Ankeny School Board approved a mask mandate 5-2 last week that requires people to wear masks while inside school buildings. The move came after U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pratt issued a temporary restraining order on a state law that bans school districts from implementing mask mandates earlier this month.

Emotions ran high at the Ankeny School Board meeting at Ankeny Centennial High School in Ankeny on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, as the board voted to approve a mask mandate in Ankeny schools.
Emotions ran high at the Ankeny School Board meeting at Ankeny Centennial High School in Ankeny on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, as the board voted to approve a mask mandate in Ankeny schools.

Parent Jeff Fahrmann told the board he would unenroll his three children if the board passed the mandate.

"I have personally confirmed 66 students that will be unenrolled through a personal survey,” Fahrmann told the board. “We unenrolled our kids last year due to the hybrid part-time instruction decision and plan to do this again if you mandate masks without reasonable exemptions.”

Related story: Federal judge temporarily blocks Iowa's ban on mask mandates in schools

Students have the option of applying for medical and religious exemptions.

Fahrmann also launched an online petition detailing his plan to defund the school district.

If families actually go through with the threat, it could cost the district thousands.

What happens if families pull their children from school before the count?

What is a certified enrollment count?

The certified enrollment count is taken on Oct. 1 every year or the following Monday if the first of the month falls on a weekend, said Heather Doe, Iowa Department of Education spokesperson.

The certified enrollment count helps determine the school district's funding for the following school year, Doe said.

Additional factors for determining aid include district programs and student services, according to the Department of Education's website.

Districts collect enrollment data during the winter and spring, but only the Oct. 1 count impacts funding, Doe said. There is a separate count for students with disabilities on the last Friday in October. This counts goes toward funding for special education programs and services.

What is the importance of the count?

If a student withdraws or leaves the district prior to Oct. 1 count date, that student will not be included when aid for next school year is calculated, Doe said.

If the district does see a significant amount of students leave and then come back it can appeal to the school budget review committee to increase its “spending authority to cover educating those students," said Margaret Buckton, executive director of the Urban Education Network, an advocacy organization for the state's urban school districts.

If approved by the committee, that money would be covered by local property taxes, Buckton said.

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Count legislation discussed by Iowa lawmakers

Iowa lawmakers have discussed changing the law surrounding Iowa's yearly enrollment count. The sweeping education bill Gov. Kim Reynolds introduced at the beginning of the legislative session would have added a second enrollment count on April 1. Iowa’s enrollment formula would have averaged that new spring count with the Oct. 1 count to create the district’s actual enrollment — a way to factor in changes in the district’s enrollment during the course of an academic year.

The Senate later amended the bill to remove the second count date. But that bill would have created an enrollment working group to study the issue. The bill did not have enough support to pass the House.

The impact on schools is the loss of funds takes away resources for educating students, Roark Horn, executive director of School Administrators of Iowa, said.

Buckton agrees with Horn that this is not a normal protest.

“I think, what it suggests is we are in extraordinary times and parents are feeling like they don't necessarily have control over decisions that (are) going to impact their children,” Buckton said.

Contributing: Ian Richardson

Follow Samantha Hernandez on Twitter: @svhernandez.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: COVID mask mandates cause Iowa families to threaten unenroll students

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