The hot topic during the Jan. 19 legislative forum in Monticello was the future of AEAs (Area Education Agencies) in Iowa.
The forum is one of three planned for the 2024 Legislative Session, hosted by Jones County Economic Development. Sen. Carrie Koelker and Rep. Steve Bradley were both in attendance.
AEAs have been on many people’s minds lately, since Gov. Kim Reynolds gave her Condition of the State address on Jan. 9. During that address, she talked of changes she’d like to see within Iowa’s AEAs.
Since her address, and just one day before the forum, Reynolds’ office issued a press release stating that due to the public sentiment she and Iowa’s legislators have received, she was walking back some of the proposed changes to AEAs.
Carole Cigrand of Cascade, a former special and general education teacher, asked the legislators why there was a rush to “decimate the AEAs.
“It feels like there are so many unanswered questions out there right now. Have you had any discussions with AEA staff about these cuts and what their services are?” she asked.
Bradley explained that if a school district is happy with the services provided by their AEA, nothing changes; no services are lost.
“The only thing that changes is the money goes from the state, to the district, to the AEA. Right now, it goes from the state to the AEA,” he said. “That’s the only thing. It allows the districts to take on the responsibility.”
Koelker made the comment that Iowa is “failing our kids” when it comes to special education scores statewide.
“About 90 percent of all the emails I’ve got on this are from employees at the AEAs,” shared Koelker. “They’re not worried about the students; they’re worried about their positions. And when you have some people who are making nearly $400,000, there is a lot of bloat in the system that we need to look at. How can we get more of that taxpayer-funded money back to the districts, back to the services that are truly needed?”
Koelker also talked about a personal story from a former staff member…
“The AEA failed their down syndrome child. There are good actors and bad actors. We’re failing our children. How can Iowa increase their rankings to make sure we are taking care of our people?”
Keith Stamp of Monticello used to work for Grant Wood AEA. He was concerned with the AEA governing boards becoming advisory boards under the bill, as well as losing general education staff.
Koelker said one reason for the proposed bill is that AEAs have become too big to manage, and funding isn’t going to special education like it should be.
“They (AEAs) employ six times more staff than the Department of Education,” she said. “$529 million is invested into our AEAs. That’s a significant amount of taxpayer dollars. Sixty-two percent of the AEA budget is only focused on special ed. That should be higher. We should be spending more money on special ed and helping to get those services to those vulnerable families who need it.”
Bradley reiterated that AEAs serve a purpose, but he’s heard from staff members who said “there’s too much administration.
“They want to streamline the administration,” he continued. “Keep the staff, everybody who is helping our kids, but the administration is bloated.”
The legislators said it comes to giving the school districts the opportunity to make the best decisions for their students. If they’re unhappy with the AEA they currently partner with, they can go elsewhere and spend that money elsewhere, too.
“There are a lot of mental services through the AEAs,” Cigrand said. “Iowa has promised to do better by mental health and it hasn’t happened yet. Where do you think that that mental health for those kids comes from? It’s in the schools. Where is it coming from for the schools? The AEAs. You take that out of there, where are teachers, students and parents going to turn?”
Koelker said over the past two years, she’s sat through sub-committee meetings in Des Moines with AEA administrators and lobbyists. The Governor’s proposal, she said, was not breaking news to AEAs.
“They knew this was coming. This is nothing new,” she said. “This is a process. We’ll have sub-committee meetings where Iowans can come speak. We’ll have committee meetings. We’ll have debates. We’re not ramming this through. We haven’t even had a sub-committee on this yet in the Iowa Senate.”
Cynthia Schneider and Deb Pingel, both of Monticello, addressed gun control with the legislators, following the school shooting in Perry, Iowa, on Jan. 4.
“The number-one killer of youth and children in this country is gun violence,” said Schneider. “And yet we have some of the most liberal gun laws, lack of laws, in the country. We have a governor, who you support, who stands up for her state address after the Perry shooting and mentions precious little about that shooting, precious little about the fact that gun violence is an epidemic. And this state is doing nothing to curb it. Is there anything coming up in the legislature this year that you would support for common sense gun safety?”
Bradley asked Schneider what she would want the state to do. She suggested laws placing limits on the age at which people can buy a gun, as well as mental health and background checks.
“We have that,” Bradley said.
“We don’t have enough,” Schneider shot back.
Koelker said Iowa has “laws against guns.
“There are law-abiding citizens and there are unlawful citizens,” she said. “The unfortunate situation in Perry rattled everybody. Our schools can have SROs (school resource officers). Schools have categorical funds that some schools denied to take for that type of safety for their schools. I want to reassure all of you that school safety is important to all of us.
“But we can’t fix (what goes on) at home,” continued Koelker. “It comes down to that, too. The schools cannot fix home.”
Pingel asked about laws that limit the sale of assault weapons.
“They can kill a lot of people in a very short amount of time,” she said. “As a veteran, I have been trained on assault rifles, but to have an 18-year-old be able to walk into a store and just buy one…”
“Just because they look bad, doesn’t mean they’re bad,” Bradley said.
“Putting a limit on this would be a nice start, I think,” urged Pingel. “I want to know why we can’t.”