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Inflation Pushes Costs Up for Iowa Schools

Fuel, energy and food costs have soared while teacher shortages have increased pressure to raise wages. The financial problem has hit as education emerges as a central issue in the Iowa governor’s race.

(TNS) — As students return to school for the fall, Iowa schools are seeing rising prices for everything from heating and transportation to food and labor as districts attempt to keep costs under budget.

As inflation remains high across the U.S., costs for nearly everything have gone up, according to superintendents and executives at several Iowa schools. Transportation and natural gas costs have seen a major increase.

At Pleasant Valley Community School District, the buses shuttling students to and from school come at a 16 percent increase in cost over last year, the district's Chief Financial Officer Mike Clingingsmith said. The school contracts with Durham School Services for transportation, and Clingingsmith said the increase is in part because the company increased pay to retain drivers, which are in high demand across the state.

Energy is also a source of increased cost, Clingingsmith said. The cost of natural gas to heat buildings at Pleasant Valley has been locked in for close to three years at about $3 per thousand cubic feet, but the cost of the same volume was more than $8 in May, though prices are expected to fall through the year.

The school's contract ends in October, and Clingingsmith said they're hoping to see prices fall more before having to lock in a new contract.

At the Mason City school district, superintendent Pat Hamilton said the district is seeing similar increase in costs, which could lead to slower maintenance, but they haven't made major budget cuts.

"That natural gas price being as high as it was, you might have back on doing some of the maintenance work you wanted to do on buildings, just because of the cost of the fuel and the natural gas it takes to keep the buildings warm and keep the buses running," he said.

Clingingsmith also noted construction costs for planned additions to two schools in the district have nearly doubled. When the district initially drew up plans to expand an elementary and junior high school, the cost estimate was around $9 million. Now, bids are coming in at around $17 million.

He said the school will have to borrow against future sales tax and other taxes to make up the cost.

"In order to complete these projects and other future projects we're gonna have to borrow again sooner than we thought we'd have to borrow because of the estimated construction costs," he said.

Food is another area where schools are seeing increased cost, as pandemic aid that provided schools with funds to feed students for free has ended. Schools are getting some federal assistance through programs like the Keep Kids Fed Act, but most have still had to raise their prices as much as 25 cents from pre-pandemic levels, School Nutrition Association of Iowa President-Elect Coni Dobbels said.

At the Davenport Community School District, where Dobbels is the supervisor of food and nutrition services, meal prices were raised by 10 cents.

School nutrition programs are generally self-funded, pulling in money from federal assistance and the cost of meals. But if the cost to produce the meal ends up outweighing how many meals the school is selling, the deficit would need to be made up by the school's general fund.

"We want to focus the general fund on education and getting kids what they need in the classroom, not worrying about the food program," Dobbels said. "So my goal is to stay positive or neutral so we don't have to ask the school board for funding for our program."

School officials said cost increases are also a concern for families, who haven't had to pay for school lunches for the past two years. Some schools, including schools in the Des Moines district and the Davenport district, qualify for universal free meals under a USDA rule based on the portion of their students that are low-income.

"The biggest increase there goes back to the families," Hamilton said. "So that's the biggest change there. It's like anything else, some of the commodities are higher than they would have been previously."

Schools are also grappling with shortages of teachers and other staff, and the cost of labor for non certified staff has increased significantly, Sibley-Ocheyedan Community School Board President Kyle Grimes said.

For jobs like bus drivers, custodians and paraeducators, schools have to compete with a private sector that is increasing wages for an ever-smaller pool of workers. Iowa's unemployment rate dropped below pre-pandemic levels this summer, and was sitting at 2.5 percent in July.

"When you're trying to compete with other businesses that have had to raise their wages, that's probably impacted us as far as budget," Grimes said.

More state aid can help schools recruit and retain teachers, Iowa State Education Association President Matt Beranek said. While he said salary wasn't the only reason schools were finding it hard to hire teachers, more state funding would allow schools to pay more competitive teacher salaries.

"We are also witnessing underfunding by the state of Iowa to our public schools, which then of course help pay our educators' salaries and benefits," he said.

Education has emerged as a central issue in the Iowa governor's race, with Democrat Deidre DeJear promising to increase funding for Iowa's public schools.

In an education policy plan released on Thursday, DeJear said she would give an immediate $300 million injection to Iowa's K-12 schools from the state's budget surplus to cover temporary costs, and she also called for a yearly 4 percent increase in supplemental state funds for education.

That rate matches the amount requested by the Iowa State Education Association, which requested a minimum of a 4 percent increase in state aid to schools during the legislative session this year.

If elected governor, DeJear said she would respond to requests from groups like the State Education Association and allow them to guide the funding decisions.

"Our challenge right now is in government is deciding what people use their money for rather than allowing the professionals who are committed to this field to tell us what they need the resources for," DeJear said in an interview this week.

Reynolds has defended her education funding priorities, noting that the state has increased education funding every year she's been in office. State aid to education has increased between 1 and 2.5 percent since 2017, when Reynolds became governor.

Reynolds told reporters at the Iowa State Fair last week in addition to funding schools, she's been focused on STEM education, work programs and registered apprenticeships. She also criticized Democrats for voting against a law passed by state Republicans in 2021 requiring schools to offer 100 percent in-person instruction as some remained in hybrid or remote instruction formats because of the pandemic, pointing to learning losses students suffered during the pandemic.

"I support our educators, I support public education," she said. "I have since I've been a lieutenant governor, since I've been a state senator. I'm committed to that."

(c)2022 Quad City Times, Davenport, Iowa. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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