The last time the Glenwood Community School District attempted to pass an Instructional Support Levy (ISL) the measure failed.
Public response to the tax that would allow the district to collect more than $800,000 in additional revenue to support their learning needs could not have been more divided in Glenwood. The vote ended in a deadlocked 434-434 tie, a single vote short of the simple majority it needed to pass.
Henry Clark, a member of the Glenwood Board of Education, said the question as to whether a district voter should say yea or nay for the ISL comes down to, in his opinion, a simple question: is the ISL the best way to get the most out of our education dollar? Answer that, he said, and you have your vote.
“Whichever way you vote, I’m sure it will be the correct way,” he said. “I’m not telling anyone to vote yes or no, which is a little hard for me, but luckily we are in a democracy, so whichever way the people vote will be the right way.”
Clark does know which way he will be voting in the Feb. 2 special ISL election but declined to say which way that would be. Clark was the only school board member to vote against bringing the ISL to district voters. Board member Dave Warren, who was not present at that Dec. 14 meeting, said in a subsequent interview he would have voted for taking the measure to the public.
Clark admits he was torn on his vote and sites two reasons why: the district could have done a better job looking at cost reductions and the district has much bigger revenue shortfalls than the ISL can cover.
“The problem with the ISL and any other revenue is you can only put it up to a vote once a year but the revenue won't come in for a year and a half, to two years,” Clark said. “So the problem is even, though we could have done a better job analyzing the costs, if you vote no now, we will potentially have financial issues and if you vote yes, we still won’t see financial impact for two years.”
That’s exactly the reason why fellow school board member Dave Blum said the time is now for the ISL. Blum said he will vote for the ISL on his ballot.
“Personally, I think it’s a good deal for Glenwood and it’s a long time coming,” said Blum. “It definitely puts us in the league with everybody else in the Hawkeye 10. It’s good for keeping our kids in the 21st Century with technology and books and teacher education. If you compare it to other schools, this will definitely help put us on an even playing field.”
State law allows school districts to pass an ISL for up to 10 years with voter approval. Currently 341 of Iowa’s 361 school districts, or about 95 percent, utilize the ISL. The program is funded from local tax sources generated by property taxes or from a combination of local property and income surtax. On Monday night, the school board decided to initially have the majority of the ISL funding (90 percent) come from the income surtax, and 10 percent from property taxes, if approved by voters.
Districts are authorized to receive up to 10 percent of their “regular program district costs” or about $820,000 in Glenwood, with an ISL.
ISL funds can then be used on nearly any “general fund” item, such as upgrading learning materials, textbooks and computers, new staff and expanding course offerings. The funds cannot be used on capital improvements, food service programs or other “non-general fund” purposes.
Just how those funds will be spent seems a sticking point for Clark.
“My background is as a controller. If anybody wants money in the company I ask ‘Why?’,” he said. “It'’s a cost-benefit decision. So people say to me, ‘Well Henry, it’s for the kids.’ Sorry, but if we don’t have a good business model we are doing the kids no good if you can’t sustain a good business model around them.”
The school district, in the midst of a budget crunch, cut over $800,000 in staff, curriculum and program materials during the 2008-2009 school year and another $300,000 this year met head on with a 10-percent state funding cut across the board and dip in enrollment that will likely put the district as much as a $1 million in the hole next year.
Even with the ISL, Glenwood Superintendent Dr. Stan Sibley said, the district will still face cuts of between $500,000 and $700,000 next year. If passed, the ISL funding would kick in for the 2012 budget round. The district has said if the ISL were to pass, the funds would first be used to shore up the budget in the short term but the long-term goal remains to improve district curriculum.
Clark feels the district learning to live within its means is only part of the problem. He favors an ambitious shift in how the district currently manages its finances to a more business-friendly “balanced score card” model of process management. Clark’s balanced score card gives the business, or in this case, the Glenwood School District, a “holistic approach” to managing finances on an “equal level,” he said.
“Each decision on its own looks good but you don’t have unlimited dollars,” said Clark. “In our (Glenwood) situation we even have less dollars than most other schools in the Hawkeye 10. So what that means is we can either say ‘Woe is me’ or we’re going to have to watch our pennies even sharper.”
That sounds good to Susan Pena. Pena and a group of parents calling themselves the Concerned Citizens of Glenwood oppose the ISL. She said the district hasn’t gained the faith of the community by working to reduce costs enough and manage money better. Not having an ISL, she feels, could fix that.
“The school board is going to be forced to have to think outside the box because with or without the ISL, they have to change how they have to do business,” Pena said. “The revenue is less, they're not going to have the same money they did before.”
Pena points to the fact that Glenwood’s district tax levy is over $18 and similarly sized Harlan’s levy is five dollars less, as reason why a new tax isn’t the answer.
“I do not feel we handle our money well enough,” said Pena, a mother of six who home-schools four of her school-age children. “I would like to see them (the district) become really faithful to the community, really show us what they're doing, listen to Mr. (Henry) Clark, he has great ideas, and probably others do to. We need to get hard numbers on the table, maybe we have to do some painful, or uncomfortable things, but show us first.”
Blum, the school board member, has heard the concerns about new taxes and accountability for where the money will be utilized first. He understands those concerns when factoring in the down economy, state budget cuts and the increasing cost of doing the business of education. But when it comes right down to it, he said, the benefits of the ISL far outweigh the drawbacks.
“You can look at it two ways,” Blum said said. “If we pass it, we have to make some cuts. If we don’t, we’ll have to make a lot of cuts. I can guarantee the money will go to where it’s needed. I'm just one of five board members but we all feel very strongly that when we do something, we’re going to do it. I’ve been in business in Glenwood for 13 years and you don't get far in business by promising one thing and doing another.”
It isn’t the new tax that bothers Clark – it’s the application of the funds from the tax he takes issue with.
“How we approach it is my question. I’m fine with our taxes,” he said.
Clark doesn't think the $840,000 the ISL generates will be enough long term, which brings Glenwood right back to where they are now, he said. “We're still going to have to come back to making cuts and managing our dollar better. I'm afraid the ISL will make us say ‘We’re okay now.’ We’re really going to be okay for one year with the ISL.”
Not passing the ISL, according to Ron Wheeler, puts Glenwood at risk of falling behind in what is becoming a sort of educational arms race.
“No one wants to see their taxes increase but what we’re trying to do is what more than 90 percent of other school's in Iowa are already doing,” said Wheeler. “We should have been there a long time ago. I was very involved in trying to get the new high school and that bond issue but in my view that was step one with that great building. Now we need to improve the inside of the building.”
Wheeler is a part of another group of Glenwood voters who support the ISL. Calling themselves the Committee to Support the Instructional Support Levy, Wheeler’s not sure if his committee or other voters who oppose the ISL will be heard the loudest come Feb. 2. But he’s sure of one thing: he wants voters to do what’s best for the future of Glenwood.
“I think there’s still some concern about the leadership of the school district by both the administration and the school board but I think we have to kind of forget about what’s happened in the past and try and do what we can to improve the future,” Wheeler said. “The past is what it is, we can’t change it.”