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School district officials grow frustrated as budget debate drags on at Iowa Capitol

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DES MOINES, Iowa — As budget talks drag on in the state Capitol, educators are stuck in a holding pattern waiting to find out how much new funding is coming to K-12 education.

Just how long they'll hold is anyone's guess.

School funding has been a central point of conflict throughout the legislative session, with the Democratic-led Senate seeking to provide more new dollars than the Republican-controlled House for the 2015-2016 academic year. Lawmakers have still not reached a compromise on this or on an overall budget.

Daily expense payments for lawmakers ended May 1, but they cannot adjourn until they reach a budget deal for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Many lawmakers didn't report to the Capitol during the past week, as legislative leaders tried to negotiate. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and Republican House Speaker Kraig Paulsen said Thursday they were making progress, but had no agreement to report.

"We feel that we have made progress," Gronstal said. "We are not there yet, but we made real progress and think we're coming closer together."

School district leaders described the situation as frustrating. Paul Gausman, superintendent of the Sioux City Community School District, said his district removed about 20 instructional assistant jobs from its payroll as it waits for word about additional money. He is also fearful lawmakers ultimately could end up providing no new money for schools.

"It does appear that this is going on long enough that if we don't get to some resolution, the very worst case scenario could become reality," said Gausman.

David Benson, superintendent for the Cedar Rapids Community School District, said the impasse has forced his district to keep about 30 teaching jobs on hold. It's also delayed efforts to schedule high school classes because it's unclear what staffing will be available for what classes. He noted that school funding is supposed to be set more than a year before the start of each new academic calendar.

"The reason the state law contemplates that education (funding) should be set early is to avoid this kind of turmoil in the education environment and to make education a state priority, not the last priority," he said.

Asked about the delay in school funding, Gronstal, of Council Bluffs, urged teachers and schools to "keep fighting for the kids they educate."

House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, from Hiawatha, said it was "disappointing" this had not been resolved.

With the Senate and Gov. Terry Branstad proposing overall general fund budgets of about $7.34 billion and House Republicans seeking to spend $7.17 billion, the overall difference between the sides is not large. For schools, the two sides are about $50 million apart. Lawmakers have been trying to find ways to make some one-time payments to make up the differences between their proposals.

Gronstal said Thursday that the two sides started about $166 million apart, but that "the differences have narrowed" and they are "significantly closer."

Melissa Peterson, a government relations specialist with the Iowa State Education Association, said the whole back-and-forth reminds her of the 2011 session, when debate over education funding and other issues kept lawmakers at the Capitol until the end of June, right before the next fiscal year began.

"It's a bit of a stare down at this juncture," she said.

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