An Iowa Department of Education official says the organization is taking a cautious approach in instituting updates to a program that provides school districts with extra state financial help if they share positions to cut costs. Department deputy director, Jeff Berger, says the program had been limited to sharing operational and maintenance positions.

But, he says that appears to have changed with the renewal of the program by the Iowa Legislature. “They did several things that would indicate that they wanted to expand the opportunities to the program. They added several functions that were not there previously and were not — in our opinion– operational,” Berger says.

“Things like guidance counselors, librarians, school nurses, social workers, curriculum directors. Those really in my mind are not maintenance and operations, which is fine.” Berger says the original law ramped down the additional funding by 20-percent over time, but the new version does not do that. The original bill only allowed for sharing between contiguous districts, but the new bill does not have that provision.

Berger says the Education Department’s biggest question is if the bill is meant to help districts add new staff as part of a sharing arrangement. He says they are wrestling over the intent of the statute because it’s lead sentence says it’s designed to “enhance student opportunities.

“There are some who would read the enhancing student opportunities to mean this is allowing us to add staff that we didn’t previously to have,” Berger says. Expanding the program to include new positions that can be shared also means expanding the supplemental money given to schools.

Berger says the state could spend a minimum of $20-million to a maximum of $85-million depending on the participation. The program currently spends $13-million. Thirty-five percent of the program is paid for through property tax, so the expansion would be a hit to taxpayers.

Berger says the Department has decided to take a narrow view of the program at this point and only offer fund sharing for positions that are already in a district’s budget. He cites as an example a superintendent position that’s equivalent to one full time position in a district.

“The superintendent was in a small district a one-point-oh (1.0). They decide with some other district to reduce that to point-eight and the other district will pick up the point-two. Because that FTE in the first district went from one to point-eight, they qualify for operational sharing,” Berger says.

The district would get extra state support based on the amount of state aid the state already pays each district for each pupil. Berger says the department wants to get more input on how far to expand the sharing program and if legislators want to fund that additional cost before they move ahead with it.

“Our approach in interpreting this is that it is much easier for us to be very conservative and go back for a clarification from the legislature and then loosen it up, than to take the broadest interpretation and let the horse out of the barn and then try to rein it back in,” Berger says.

The State Board of Education gave initial approval to the conservative rules for the updated program at their meeting last week. The issue will now go to a public hearing and then to a legislative review committee.