Rural School Advocates set 2022 legislative agenda at annual meeting

Representatives from member school districts of the Rural School Advocates of Iowa (RSAI) convened their Annual Meeting Wednesday, October 26 at the FFA Enrichment Center in Ankeny. RSAI advocates on behalf of the students, parents and communities in rural Iowa, to ensure that all students have access to a great Iowa education, regardless of where they live. RSAI members include over 140 Iowa school districts but several are among the largest geographic school districts in the state.

School Funding, known as State Supplemental Assistance, or SSA, was a clear priority for RSAI members. Superintendent Dr. Dan Peterson, Central DeWitt Community School District, said this funding is not just a priority but supports the very survival of rural schools.

“We have 47 fewer school districts than we did just 20 years ago,” he stated.

School funding primarily pays for people, including the teachers, counselors, librarians, administrators, nurses, secretaries, coaches and custodians, many of which are in critically short supply today in rural schools. According to Dr. Peterson, “Low funding inhibits our ability to attract and retain staff and to remain competitive with the private sector in Iowa’s growing economy.”

Joel Pedersen, Superintendent at Cardinal Community School District, advocated for RSAI to insist on a specific increase of at least 3.75% per pupil. “In 11 of the last 12 years, the increase per pupil has not been enough to cover our schools’ cost of doing business. We appreciate the legislature and Governor committing to funding for formula equity and transportation assistance, but with today’s wage inflation, we simply can’t continue with 2% increases and keep up with Iowa’s private sector employers.”

The group discussed the record FY 2021 surplus carried forward in the State budget, with over $800 million available to the State for funding Iowa’s priorities, including public education.

Barb Schwamman, shared superintendent for Riceville and Osage Community School Districts, advocated for flexibility and supports for rural schools to recruit and retain great teachers, bus drivers and staff. “Those of us on a state border see teachers drive a short commute for thousands more in salary. State licensure, accreditation and retirement requirements are barriers to recruiting local community members and retired teachers to fill vacant positions right away. Although the pandemic has made it harder to fill vacant positions, we’ve seen this coming in rural Iowa for years. Educators must be a critical component of Iowa’s Future Ready Workforce focus.”

Innovation during the pandemic will improve instruction and student engagement in the future, if students and staff have access to good internet connections. Closing the technology divide is a clear priority for RSAI members. Superintendent Brian Johnson, shared superintendent for Prairie Valley and Southeast Webster Grand Community School Districts, thanked Governor Reynolds for her push on expanded internet in Iowa last session and encouraged her and Iowa’s Legislators to keep at it.

“Iowa’s rural students and staff need reliable and affordable broadband internet connections to continue our progress in STEM and computer science classes, as well as connecting us to resources throughout the world. This is no longer just a homework gap for our students,” Johnson said.
RSAI members also included the following issues as additional priorities for the 2022 Legislative Session:

• Local school board flexibility and authority, including a commitment to implementing home rule and interpreting Iowa’s laws (liberally construe the statute and court rulings) to effectuate the purposes of local control.
• Quality preschool, including funding for three- and four-year-old preschool at a 1.0 weighting, to help provide full-day service and cover transportation costs in rural schools.
• Student mental health, including resources to assess and address student’s social, emotional and behavioral needs, especially for Iowa’s rural students living in communities without mental health providers.
• Formula and Transportation Equity: formula equity, closing the state and district per pupil gap within ten years and continued transportation equity support without burdensome reporting requirements.
• Sharing Incentives/Efficiencies: extension of Whole Grade Sharing, Reorganization and Operational Sharing Incentives. The 21-student cap should expand to allow access to any new flexibility.
• Opportunity equity for students from low-income families, with funding to help cover mandated fee waivers and to provide services to support these students to success.

Position papers on key issues and a Digest of the 2021 Legislative Session are available on the RSAI legislative webpage at