Rough economy causes Ames schools to face tough budgeting challenges

Year after year, budget shortages in public education seem to be debated and discussed ad nauseam. A teacher is laid off here, a building is closed there, and ends always seem to meet. But this year, with a terrible economy, the budget crisis could have severe effects on educational quality. As it is now, the budget crisis could call for some drastic measures. “You’ve got several variables, most importantly the economy,” Ames High Principal Michael McGrory said. “A bad economy means that state tax revenues are way down, and we get a big portion of the state money. If revenues are down, then you have to find ways to cut, and you can’t help cutting into education as it is such a big portion of state money.” The economic crisis has put added stress on the budget as schools can not longer plan their budget in the Spring and work everything out beforehand. Schools are losing large chunks of money midyear, which makes planning nearly impossible. “They have come out with some things too that have caused us some budget issues,” McGrory said. “This upcoming year, we were told that we would get four percent new money, and then they cut it to two percent during the school year. You plan your budget, then the state came back and said ‘you need to give us a large amount back.’” The outlook is grim as the economy shows no signs of improving. This causes budgeting for public institutions, such as education, to have to deal with long-term negative budget effects. “Another concern that people have is that this isn’t just one year,” McGrory said. “We can figure out how to deal with it this year, but then we will still have a couple years of trouble.” As for the outlook for students, uncertainty is at such a high level that it is hard to imagine what will end up happening. One thing is for certain though, schools will suffer. “In a couple months we will have a better idea of the outlook for students, but right now we still don’t know what we are going to have to cut,” McGrory said. “One thing always in back of your mind is that about 81 percent goes to personnel, so if you have to make big budget cuts, it is going to affect personnel, because the other 19 percent is a lot of fixed costs like electricity.” It seems confusing that and the Ames Community School District is looking into spending a great deal of money on infrastructure, as they get millions of dollars every year for infrastructure. Due to budgeting regulations, a great deal of money is recieved by school districts that can only be spend on infrastructure and building processes, not on teacher pay or other important expenses. “My proposal would be, for example, for sales tax. We should take off the constraints of how to spend that money for just two or three years. It would allow the districts to use that money for the general budget, and that would help a ton,” McGrory said. “But I know the concern is that districts could use that money for other things, and buildings and infrastructure would never be fixed.” Our local representatives share a similar sentiment to that of McGrory. “Although I would not have any objections to lifting the restrictions, many in the Iowa legislature do,” said Beth Wessel-Kroeschell. “I would like to give schools more flexibility in their spending for academic programming, text books and technology. Unfortunately, many attempts have failed.” Representative Wessel-Kroeschell noted the recent good work done by Iowa schools, but also lamented the negative effects on schools, teacher, and students. “Over the last two years, we have raised teacher pay in Iowa from 41st in the nation to 25th. We need to continue this commitment to keep Iowa competitive,” Wessel-Kroeschell said. “Unfortunately, as you are aware, this is going to be a tough budget year. There is no new money and the Governor cut most budgets by 6.5% in his proposed budget.” Mrs. Wessel-Kroeschell’s support for lifting some restrictions gives hope that students and teachers will be able to maintain a very high level of education quality. Ames is one of the best school systems in the state of Iowa; we have some of the brightest students and some of the most athletic students. With intelligent decision making by those in charge, is it possible to get through this crisis without a great deal of sacrifice.