A group of AEA staff members explained how Iowa’s AEA system has worked and how proposed changes would impact participating school districts during a forum held Wednesday at Gibson Memorial Library in Creston.
To start the Iowa legislative session, Gov. Kim Reynolds had proposed an overhaul of the state’s Area Education Agencies. How she explained her vision has since changed, initially citing how test scores from students who use AEA services are not justifying the costs of the AEAs. Iowa’s nine AEAs, which are governmental agencies not affiliated with the state Department of Education, provide special education services to schools in their boundaries and assist with classroom equipment, media services and professional development among other services.
Reynolds revised her plan earlier this week. Federal and state special education funds would be sent to school districts, which would consider to contract with the AEAs. If districts do not contract, they would still have the requirement to educate students with disabilities, but could acquire instruction from a third party including private companies.
Chief Administrator at Green Hills Area Education Agency in Council Bluffs Dr. Jason Ploudre said the proposal sends the AEA concept back to the reasons why AEAs were created in 1973.
“If you want to read something well written, read the original bill. If you want to read something that is not so well written, read the new bill. Whoever was involved writing the original bill had great foresight. It has foresight and they were smart people that wrote it in a way was very clear,” he said.
Ploudre added the attention AEAs have received since Reynolds announced her plans has given AEAs the chance to promote and explain themselves.
“We need to do a better job of telling our stories. We want to dispel some rumors. An organization that has been around for 50 years could be accused of being stagnant and stale and not evolved. That could not be farther from the truth. These things have been added through the years, because schools have asked fo them and there hasn’t been people to fill the gap. We have filled the gap,” he said.
Ploudre suspected under the proposed changes the rural schools would struggle with equity. “We all want Iowa kids to have a great experience in school. We need to do a better job coordinating across organizations and agencies,” he said. “We would all benefit and kids would benefit from cross collaboration. She’s right in that,” he said, referring to Reynolds.
But Ploudre said the proposal is happening too quickly and not enough discussions with pertinent people are being held.
“Before the AEAs there were huge inequities across our region,” Ploudre said. “Back then we had county schools and 99 counties. Right now we have nine AEAs. We are really moving toward 99 AEAs.”
Ploudre suspects many smaller school districts will not have the funding to adequately contract all needed services for the students, even if multiple districts shared the same staff members. Other comments were if the districts could even find people to do the jobs.
Ploudre said, for example, metro-Des Monies area students had access to services and supports while many other students across the state did not have the same access. That condition influenced the creation of AEAs.
“What they created was funneling funding into these bigger groups called AEAs, and they will make sure all students have equitable services and supports. So we got unstuck as a state and it got better and better. We are kind of proposing going back, potentially, 50 years to this old county system which is not going to go well.”
Green Hill AEA employee Beau Jacobson said a small district, like Orient-Macksburg, that does not have the needed staff member for a student could contact neighboring school districts who may have the person. But the student has to be transported to the school with the staff member for services. Jacobson speculated that could influence the family to enroll the student to the school with the staff member. Jacobson has worked with Orient-Macksburg during his career.
AEAs receive special education funding for the schools in their region and are tasked with providing that education to those districts.
AEAs would continue to provide other services to school districts under Reynolds’ revised proposal — if the district requests them and they are approved by the education department.
The bill would continue a $35 million property tax levy that schools can use to pay for the AEAs’ educational services, but end a $33 million property tax stream that funds the agencies’ media services. The education service funds could be used for media services. Media services include various books, digital resources and certain coaching and consultation.
Under the proposal, much of the AEAs’ operations and oversight would also come under the state Department of Education. The department director would be in charge of hiring AEA directors, making decisions on combining and dissolving AEAs and approving budgets submitted by the AEAs.