The state of Iowa could take action against Davenport school district Superintendent Art Tate and school board members if they follow through on a plan to violate state law by spending more money than authorized, a state education official said Tuesday.
If the district exceeds its budget authority, “that’s going to create some problems,” said Jeff Berger, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Education. “His board is most vulnerable here. They take final action on spending or non-spending.”
Board members who agree to take illegal action could face criminal charges, and action could be taken against Tate’s professional license, Berger said.
His comments came a day after Tate told the Davenport School Board that he will “violate state law” by using more money than the state of Iowa has authorized the district to spend. Tate, who is faced with budget cuts from a decline in state aid and student enrollment, is taking “full and sole responsibility” for the violation of state law, he said.
Tate said he is following the example of the state Legislature, which has “ignored the law this year by not providing districts with the state supplemental aid amount by Feb. 12, 2015.”
Additionally, Tate has referred to a funding process that provides $175 less per student for the Davenport district compared with other districts, including Bettendorf and Pleasant Valley, that receive the highest per-student rate in the state.
Dawn Saul, spokeswoman for the Davenport district, said calls and emails to the district on Tuesday were very supportive.
“We’re just saying we’ve got the money — give us the authority to spend it,” Marsha Tangen, chief financial officer for the district, said Tuesday.
Berger's response to Tate's declaration was measured.
“I guess my initial reaction was anybody can say anything anywhere,” Berger said. “I don’t get the impression that Art Tate historically has acted outside the law. Davenport has been a good district that way — they tend to want to comply with the law.
“I get a sense he was frustrated.”
And, he added, the Davenport school district has taken no action.
“We’ll wait to see what they actually do. He does have some spending authority,” Berger said. “He can certainly use that authority to spend down some of his cash reserve if he wants to.”
He added: “All of that is hyperbole at this point. We’re hoping calmer heads will prevail."
Berger said Tate has a point about different costs per pupil among Iowa school districts.
“My response to Art is we should be talking about how to fix this disparity," he said. "But let’s do that within channels and not outside.
“Think of the kids perceiving the message: ‘We don’t care what the law says, we’re going to do what we want.’ Is that OK modeling? Do we want our leaders and officials doing that?"
Rep. Ross Paustian, R-Walcott, said he endorses Tate's decision.
“I support Dr. Tate’s efforts to put the students and parents of Davenport first,” he said. “In the Legislature, I will continue to support efforts to give school boards and superintendents more flexibility.
“The state can’t spend money it doesn’t have, just like school districts can’t spend money they don’t have. If the district feels (it needs) to tap into reserves on a short-term basis, I don’t have a problem with that.
“However, I do not support turning around and raising property taxes to refill those reserves.”
Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, said two issues have put school districts in a difficult situation. One, she said, is the inequity going back to the early 1970s when the state took on a shared responsibility for funding schools.
“Until that point, property tax was the only funding for schools,” Winckler said. “Then the state decided it would be shared and came up with the state cost per pupil.”
At that time, there was a stronger sense of local control, and some school districts levied more than the set cost per pupil. Those districts were allowed to keep that differential, Winckler said. Pleasant Valley and Bettendorf benefited from that.
“But North Scott and Davenport were not levying that before, so therefore, they cannot levy more than the state cost per pupil,” Winckler said.
To add to that, “For five years, we have not set supplemental state aid in the time frame we are supposed to,” Winckler said. “That creates such uncertainty for the school districts.”
“What’s interesting is for us not following the law to set supplemental state aid, is that there is no consequence, no personal consequence," she added. "But for Dr. Tate, if in fact our Department of Education would choose to act … he could lose his license.
Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, serves on a committee that is considering Senate Study Bill 1254, which would allow school districts that aren’t receiving the highest cost per pupil to use reserves to make up the difference. The bill, he said, didn’t make it out of the Senate.
“It’s not dead, but it’s on life support,” Dvorsky said.
Margaret Buckton, a lobbyist for the Rural School Advocates of Iowa and the Urban Education Network of Iowa, said language from the bill still could go into an appropriations bill.
Meanwhile, the Davenport district has not yet done anything wrong, she said.
“And the Legislature could actually do something that gives them the spending authority that they want,” she said.