When fights broke out in Kalyn Cody’s middle school math class, he would pick up the phone and call the school office for help.

Cody, a former Des Moines school teacher, tried to quell disruptive behavior in his classroom at Goodrell Middle School, but he said he didn’t have enough staff to help maintain the status quo.

Problem was, no one else did either.

“The bell would ring before anyone would show up because they’re swamped as well,” Cody said.

He quit his teaching job in 2018 after working in the district for nearly a decade — in part because of the lack of support in managing his increasingly growing classrooms, he said.

While it’s not the end-all solution, Cody said there is no doubt more money would help school districts like Des Moines better staff classrooms and provide programming for students who may be struggling emotionally — a rising issue he witnessed at schools.

He is advocating for more money from the Iowa Legislature so other teachers and students don’t have to endure similar challenging times he went through.

“We’re bare-bones right now,” Cody said. “Stress is through the roof. Most of the people who I know are teachers are actively trying to get out of teaching or are talking about it.”

It’s a narrative that isn’t unique to Des Moines schools — the most populated and diverse school district in the state.

Education advocates in Iowa argue that at least a decade of underfunding combined with a shift in student demographics is creating unprecedented challenges for schools across the state

Duane Willhite, superintendent at North Fayette Valley Community School District in northeast Iowa and longtime educator, said he’s seen more poverty in area schools now than when he started nearly 20 years ago.

School children in poverty are faced with more challenges that can become barriers for them in the classroom, such as food insecurity, lack of early education and more medical problems. Unlike their wealthier counterparts, they may not have access to additional lessons like music or sports, according to the New York Times.

Though not all students who qualify for free and reduced lunch are in poverty, many of them come from low-income families and that rate has nearly doubled in Iowa since 2000-01. Last school year, 207,835 public students qualified for free or reduced lunch in Iowa, a nearly 44% percent jump from 20 years ago.

“All of those kids in poverty are coming to school less well prepared than others,” Willhite said. “There’s mental health issues going on that we can’t do anything about.”

The Des Moines school district announced last year it was undergoing major cuts to better balance its unspent spending authority — the dollars that remain after districts spend their money allowed by Iowa law.

That’s because of recent underfunding by the Iowa Legislature, school officials say. Between fiscal years 2000-2010, an average annual increase of 3.6% was appropriated to schools. Between 2011-2020, that aid decreased to an average of 1.76% annually, according to data from the Legislative Services Agency.

Des Moines schools offered teachers pay increases higher than the annual average supplemental state aid, resulting in the need for cuts now, said Shashank Aurora, chief financial officer of Des Moines schools.

This fiscal year, $24 million in cuts were made. One of the biggest cost savings was reducing health insurance benefits for employees, Aurora said. Co-pay amounts were increased, which reduced premium costs, he said.

Using the 2.5% supplemental state aid projection, Aurora said Des Moines schools will cut under $20 million for this next fiscal year.

Willhite’s school district, which recently merged with others, has some extra money to keep the district from making cuts right now. But when those extra funds go away in 2024, he expects to make staff cuts, like school counselors.

He would like to see the Legislature provide a 3.75% increase.

“There’s just a lot of supporting people we’ll probably lose if we don’t get more than 2%,” Willhite said.

A disagreement in numbers

Republicans in the Iowa House have proposed increasing supplemental state aid for K-12 schools by 2.5%, while Senate Republicans are proposing a 2.1% increase.

Legislators this week debated the funding amount for the 2020-21 school year. Democrats in both chambers proposed a 3% increase that goes beyond Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ 2.5% recommendation at the start of session.

Democrats echoed the concerns of some educators who said they’re struggling to maintain classrooms and retain enough staff.

“Students are getting injured. Teachers are getting injured,” said Rep. Molly Donahue, D-Cedar Rapids. “We lack the programs that catch these issues before they get to the violence.”

But Republicans pointed out that underfunding occurred when Democrats were in control of the Legislature and said they didn’t fully fund the state aid they promised to school districts.

Senate education chair Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, pointed out three years where Democrats were in control of the Legislature and promised supplemental state aid that ended up getting reduced, she said.

In 2008, former Iowa Gov. Chet Culver ordered a 1.5% across-the-board cut in state spending and a federal block grant was used in lieu of state aid. The year after, Culver announced a 10% across-the-board cut in 2010 amid a recession. And for the next year, legislators didn’t come to an agreement for supplemental funding and left it at 0%.

“Promises only matter if they’re kept,” Sinclair said. “Those were actual cuts to education.”

When it comes to education staffing, Sinclair said she isn’t hearing about struggles from teachers who are leaving because of inadequate pay.

Instead, she said schools are having a hard time finding new staff because of the state’s low unemployment rates. Teachers are leaving because of behavioral issues in classrooms, which she said she’s addressing with her proposed $500,000 plan for therapeutic classrooms this session.

Sinclair also said the Legislature passed an extension to the penny-sales tax last year, which will provide billions to Iowa schools in the next 30 years for infrastructure needs.

“Our priority shows in what we spend, Sinclair said. “I’ve got three years of promises I’ve met as chair of the education committee.”

For now, school districts said they are waiting to see how funding will shake out in the Legislature. Iowa lawmakers face a deadline this week for approving supplemental state aid for schools, which by law is supposed to be set in the first 30 days of the legislative session.

But some of those working in Iowa’s classrooms say they’re pessimistic about the chances for an increase greater than 2% to meet their needs.

“If we talk again at this time in a year, you would not be telling a better story,” Cody said.