Public School Administrators

Iowa Press | Episode
Sep 1, 2023 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Dr. Brad Buck, superintendent of the Waukee Community School District, and Chris Coffelt, superintendent of the Central Decatur Community School District and Lamoni Community Schools, discuss various issues involving public education in Iowa.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Linh Ta of Axios Des Moines, and Caleb McCullough of the Quad City Times and Lee Newspapers.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.



From teachers to books to parental involvement in funding, public schools are at the center of several political and ideological debates. We'll talk about those issues with two public school administrators on this edition of Iowa Press.


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For decades, Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, September 1st edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: Two weeks ago, two private school administrators were here to discuss issues and this week we have two public school superintendents to talk about the new state laws that are affecting the operation of schools statewide. Brad Buck is the Superintendent at Waukee Public Schools and Chris Coffelt is the Superintendent for Central Decatur and Lamoni Public Schools. Gentlemen, welcome to Iowa Press.

Thank you. Thanks for having us.

Thank you.

Henderson: Joining the discussion, Linh Ta of Axios Des Moines and Caleb McCullough of the Quad City Times and Lee Newspapers.

McCullough: We're a couple of weeks into the school year here with the new education savings account program that students are able to take advantage of. Brad, how many students at Waukee have received an education savings account and are now attending a private school that you know of?

Buck: Yeah, so that's a great question to lead in. We don't actually know the number at this point. So, we'll get, our understanding is we'll get that information in October. So, we know that there's been several hundred in Dallas County itself, but we don't know the number for us. So, maybe some context would be helpful. We grow about 500 students each year and we're scheduled to do that this year. We build our budget around growing 400, potential anticipation of what ESA's may represent, and we've kept the most close eye on kindergarten because kindergarten is the grade level that there aren't income requirements around. So, we thought if it was going to impact us that's maybe the grade level where we'd see a difference. And we started the school year with about 1,000 kindergartners, which is typical for us for a school year. And last I knew we were up about 500 or so students. So, we don't have indication yet that it has done something to us. But it could be that we would have otherwise grown 600 students, for example. So, we'll just have to keep an eye on that as the information becomes available.

McCullough: Chris, Decatur County was one that received no education savings account for those students. So, is it true that your school districts did not have any students leave for those education savings accounts?

Coffelt: That's accurate, not that we're aware of. But, we also think that that might not be the right question to ask in terms of students that have left for that because students have always had choice about where they may want to go to school. For us, it's what is the long-term impact of opening up public school funds for private school choice for school districts and students across the state?

McCullough: And that leads right into the next question. So, for each of you, what is your view of this program, this education savings account program? Brad?

Buck: Yeah, so I guess I would start with a fan of choice. So, there has been a variety of types of choice over the years in Iowa and I appreciate that there's opportunities for families to have choices outside of public education, although we think we do public education pretty well. So, they exist now, so we wouldn't want to send a message at all that there's any animosity between our system or the private system. I think the concerns that I would have relative to ESAs are things like accountability systems, what it's going to mean for funding in the state for schools, because as you take that state budget, as you continue to split it up with additional students you end up with just that many more students to fund as the budget grows or does not grow. So, I think the issues that we would have are things related to long-term funding questions, accountability for that system, just those kinds of things.

McCullough: Chris?

Coffelt: I actually appreciate the way Brad framed that and would agree. And I think maybe to that point or as another example of that is when that bill for ESAs was passed earlier this legislative session, there were a couple of bills that followed that would have supported education across the state of Iowa, increasing funding for preschool or creating a more universal pre-school system, also looking at an expansion of the school resource officer program to support funding for that for all school districts in Iowa. And when those bills came through, they effectively died on the table because the response was, there's not enough funding to support other initiatives like that. And so, I think it validates the concern of now that we've expanded and created a system that supports really an expansion of funding for public and private education, how will this be sustained in the future moving forward for school districts across the state?

Ta: Speaking of school funding, the state is giving public school districts $1200 per pupil who decide to leave and use the ESA program. Chris, is that enough money?

Coffelt: So, I don't know that that's enough money to replace the funding that would have been there had the student remained in the school district itself. And since we haven't been impacted by that directly it's hard to say in what way that we would use that for any of the programs or staff that we have in place.

Ta: Brad?

Buck: Yeah, so my understanding is that is related to the categoricals.

Henderson: For people who don't know categoricals, what does that mean?

Buck: Yeah, so categorical funding is funding that can only be used for specific reasons. So, like the physical plant and equipment levy, the SAVE, the statewide penny, those kinds of things.

Henderson: For infrastructure?

Buck: For infrastructure, yeah. Thank you. So, it will be interesting to see. I think it's a good thing that that remains and exists for the public schools. But, to Chris' point, the $7600 for each student who walks out the door, the math for that doesn't work long-term likely.

Ta: Two weeks ago, we had private school educators here share that they believe the ESA program will help create more private schools in their areas. Do you see that happening in Decatur County?

Coffelt: Again, it's hard to tell what might happen in the future. I think certainly what we want to ensure is regardless of what type of choice parents have or what structure might be available, we work on making the system that is a part of our community currently one that students want to go to and parents are proud of. And so, that's what we'll work to continue to do. And I think in that, much like we have done in the past, parents will choose to be in our school systems or in school systems that meet those needs for them and the needs of the kids that those schools are serving proudly on a daily basis.

McCullough: One argument that public school advocates made while this program was in discussion against it is that it will disproportionately affect rural schools because they don't have the same level of funds that urban schools do. But, as we mentioned, in Decatur County there were no education savings accounts that were approved, so that money isn't leaving school districts. So, do you still have that concern about the rural school district?

Coffelt: I do because I also believe that money is not coming to the school districts in the future. Over the past 10 years we've seen on average about a two percent growth in state supplemental assistance, the state aid that school districts receive. That's about 60% of our budget that supports staffing and instruction, that serves students on a daily basis. Two percent increase on an annual basis does not meet what we are seeing in increases in expenditures on a basis, nor does it allow us to pay our teachers, pay our staff in a way that is competitive with the private sector, with private industry. And so, we continue to see challenges ahead for how we can be competitive so the people want to be in education and serve and work with our students and families on a daily basis.

Henderson: Brad Buck, a decade ago you were the Director of the Iowa Department of Education under Terry Branstad's governorship. A decade now on from that, what changed? What changed in the debate about public education that now you have passage of state funded education savings accounts?

Buck: Yeah, it was interesting when I went into that directorship a decade or so ago, people may recall we were working on Iowa CORE, so we were going to get serious about making sure every child had a list of things they should know and be able to do. We were working on a national assessment framework so we could get a sense for where Iowa children were. We were working on the teacher leadership and compensation system so we could be putting high quality systems of support in place for teachers to do an even better job of teaching. So, it has just been honestly troubling to me to watch what has happened over time. A decade ago we were talking about really doing the things it was going to take to support and improve public schools. And now we've gone down a path where we would say there's a private school option for your child to go to with different expectations and accountability systems than exist for the public school system.

Henderson: As Caleb mentioned, there was intense debate about this. And one of the arguments that supporters of this change made was that competition improves everybody. What is your view about that competition?

Buck: Yeah, so it's America, right? We love competition. We love the concept of competition. And I think what we also embrace is fairness. And so, if we're going to compete, I think the question is if you have one system working under one set of rules and another system working under another set of rules, is that really competition? And is it in the spirit of fairness that we would typically expect? So, let me go back and just say this -- we will go pound for pound with everybody in Waukee. So, I'm happy to try to compete against whomever we need to compete against. I think though the question as it relates to ESAs is, is it the same playing field? And is it the same rule set for the two systems? And does that truly lead to different outcomes from a competition perspective?

Henderson: What is your view of this competition argument, Chris?

Coffelt: I would agree with Brad and in that same line I would also focus on what is it that, again, we will do if we are going to support and sustain all school districts in Iowa now with public funds, then how are we going to understand the varying needs and the context of situations from community to community, county to county, region to region, that probably creates some of the circumstances and addresses the challenges that schools are going to face, private or public, that will help support and meet the needs of those students?

McCullough: Now, a law passed this year, moving to classroom policies now, a law passed this year that was intended to inform parents if their child wanted to be referred to by a different gender in school, has led to some school districts needing to require approval from parents to call a student by a nickname, like John instead of Jonathan, for example. How are you implementing that policy at your own schools? Brad?

Buck: Yeah, so we actually put together a form that we asked our parents to fill out. So, in that form we asked them to put the child's preferred name. And what we were trying to do is set up a system where we were proactively addressing the question. And this is one of those things that at 30,000 feet seems straight forward, if a child is trying to get an accommodation based on gender, that's probably a very small number of students overall. But, if you go into a system and you have a student who is like a Robert or a Roberta and they go by a name that becomes more of a traditionally unisex name, we were trying to avoid the situation then when the teacher hears the potentially unisex sounding nickname to then have to go on and say, now is that because you've always been called whatever that name is? Or is this now because of a gender accommodation that you're seeking? So, we actually tried to be proactive and remove that conversation by sending a form out to all of our families ahead of the school year and say, please let us know what you'd like your child to be called at school so we know that preferred name.

McCullough: And Chris, are you doing the same thing? Is that happening at rural school districts?

Coffelt: We just work in a smaller economy of scale. And so, unlike the approach that Brad took, which I think fits the school district and the number of students they serve, we were able to take a little bit more personal approach and we worked with students and with families on an individual basis, which I think fit the needs and the context of our school community.

Ta: That same law also looks at certain books and requires school districts to remove some books, those that specifically have sex acts in them. How many books have you removed from your shelves, Chris? And can you share some titles?

Coffelt: So, I think I'll answer that in two ways. We've had over the last, well in the last 10 years we've had zero requests to have instructional materials removed from our school shelves. And we have not, at this point, removed any books from our shelves. But, what we are doing is looking at what the law is, looking to see what questions we have and asking the resources that we have available for additional guidance. We're looking at our own individual district policy to see what are the processes and procedures that we have in place for whether a book is to be considered to be removed or to be added to our school library and then following the procedure established through that for any of those reviews. But we have not removed any at this point. But certainly, we're aware of it and cognoscente of what the expectation of the law is and working to see just how that continues to play out as we continue into the school year.

Ta: How about in Waukee, Brad?

Buck: Yeah, so we pulled in teacher librarians over the summer as well as English teachers to talk through what we believe are the expectations of this law. And I would just want to say this, we have received no guidance from the Iowa Department of Education about the implementation of these laws, and I think that has created extra confusion out in schools and school districts about what needs to be accomplished. But, to that point, read through the law, read through the definition of sex acts, etcetera, and then tried to decide -- because there's nuances in defining what those sex acts are, even though they're defined in the law what is seemingly clear, that is not necessarily seemingly clear by incident in a story. So, we worked with our teacher librarians and our English teachers and we removed about, I would say removed about 24 books, I think that's kind of where we are. The Color Purple, Lawn Boy, I probably won't do well off the top of my head, yes for some examples.

Ta: You mentioned the lack of guidance from the Department of Education, I didn't know for your district, Chris, has that lack of guidance affected you guys at all?

Coffelt: It would be helpful to create clarity at the state level for and provide direction for all school districts at the local level for how best to implement a review of any book and instructional material.

McCullough: Now, lawmakers, the republican lawmakers who wrote this law, have said, this shouldn't be hard to differentiate those rules. There are, as you mentioned, the list of acts in the law that are not allowed in those books? Do you agree with that? What makes this difficult, Brad?

Buck: Yeah, so I think it gets down to what is the level of graphic depiction that actually gets us to the point that it would cause that book to be removed. And I think there has also been some unclear messaging from some of the legislators when they say things like, you know the books that we're thinking of, and we're not thinking of Shakespeare and we're not thinking of religious books. And so, when you think about Shakespeare and a play like Romeo and Juliet, and we say okay, that type of book isn't what we're thinking about, or what is contained in a book like the Bible, that's not what we're thinking about. That I think adds further confusion around, so what specifically are we thinking about and describing then? So again, it just goes back to it would be helpful if they would have provided some clarity around what they were thinking about specifically.

Ta: The state just recently released last week the 2023 spring assessments and it showed that overall Iowa student academic performance was mostly stagnant on the standardized assessments and while some marginalized students showed some achievement gaps, especially students who are lower income, students with disabilities or students of color. Are you still seeing lingering effects from COVID-19 on academics in schools, Brad?

Buck: Yes, I would say in Waukee we weathered that pretty well. So, I would say our scores have held up pretty decently and I'm sure at the state level once you start to aggregate the data you start to get a little different picture than you would at the school district level. But overall for our specific context, things have gone largely pretty well, although I would want to own that we have gaps in our outcomes in children of poverty, children of color, we would have those much like others in the state and would want to be responsible to that.

Ta: Any thoughts, Chris?

Coffelt: I would add to what Brad said, and actually for us as we look at the academics we also look at what are the core issues then that might be affecting students' ability to focus on learning in the classroom. And so, we look at student social emotional health, student wellbeing, the factors that are impacting them that we may or may not have control over. And so, we're really also looking at the other area of the disregulated students, students who are in crisis, families who are struggling and seeing what we can do to address those challenges that they face and that they're bringing into the school system because until we meet those base needs, much like everybody is, until you meet those base needs it's hard to focus on learning and the academics.

Henderson: Chris, let's talk about workforce. Your ability to attract and retain in rural Iowa may be different from a suburban school district like Brad's. What are you seeing in terms of your ability to keep people on the payroll?

Coffelt: It's challenging and that's across the board. We have vacancies this school year that we haven't been able to fill --

Henderson: For what sort of academic?

Coffelt: We have special education openings, we have para openings, it's really across the board. We have bus drivers that we haven't been able to find and put into positions. And so, staffing in our area has been and continues to be a challenge. And so, I think that that's adding to the fatigue, the stress, the burnout that teachers are facing because we're asking them to do more, to cover more and it's not -- and we're having to figure out ways to both support those people that have committed to us and identify ways that we might attract people to come to our school communities. But at the end of the day, they're just not, there aren't a lot of people out there. I think our universities are graduating fewer graduates, there are just fewer people in the workforce that are interested in looking at education as a career. And so, we have to look at what we're doing to grow not only our own teachers but staff too and those associated staff positions that are going to help run the entire business of the school.

Henderson: Beyond support staff, Brad, have you filled every classroom with a teacher?

Buck: We have this year. That wasn't true last year. Yeah, and we used to see, and this is probably an eye-popping thing, ten years ago in Waukee we would have several hundred applications for like an elementary school teacher. Now that is in the dozens. So, the scale of, even in a suburban area, the scale of what has happened with the total number of applicants is, it's significantly different than it was even a decade ago.

Henderson: So, why do you think that is?

Buck: Well, I think as Chris noted, we have fewer kids going into the teaching profession. That is true statewide of applications into colleges of education, those are down. I think one of the other concerns I have is what is happening with the rhetoric over the last few years with the legislature. I think it has been a move or it feels like it has been a move to take on public education. And I would just say teachers are incredibly resilient, strong people and I think they hear what people are saying about them relative to laws that need to be passed about kids' names and these books and all of that. And while it may not be even directly impacting them, just sort of the wear and tear that comes with that I think has impacted what it means to be a teacher and what it looks like to be a teacher.

Henderson: Just a couple of minutes left. Caleb?

McCullough: Yeah, now to talk about funding quickly. Your schools get funding based on the previous year's enrollment and that means fast growing districts like Waukee don't always get funding for every student that is enrolled. If you had a magic wand and you could rewrite Iowa's famously simple school funding formula, what would you do, Brad?

Buck: Yeah, so on-time funding would be a huge deal for us. As you mentioned, we educate about 500 students for free annually. I would also say if there was some kind of equity component into it, so if you could do something with students represented by free or reduced lunch, low SES, if there could be some kind of waiting factor in there to acknowledge that there are additional levels of complexity disproportionately with children of poverty compared to others. Those probably jump out. Full funding for preschool, I think that would be another item that would jump out to me. And then, this is something we tried to take on five or six years ago, a group of superintendents, the funding in Iowa used to be tied to economic indicators and so there was no political component to it. And so, what was really great about it at that time was in good times you got more money, in lean times you got less money and that made sense to everyone. And then as soon as, what you see is as soon as the politicians got in the mix and it was no longer decided by something that wasn't in politics, you saw a shift in what happened in terms of school funding. So, those pop to mind.

Henderson: About a minute left. Linh?

Ta: Some school districts have considered going to a four-day week to try to save money and also attract more staff. Anything that you would consider, Chris?

Coffelt: Absolutely. I think that we have to look at it as a potential teacher recruitment and retention strategy. There are school districts in our area that are evaluating it, there are school districts across the nation that are implementing it. And so, we are looking to see if that is something that makes sense for us. We're also looking to see what would be the impact on students and families on that day that we are not in session and ensuring that we would have supports in place for them so that that child is taken care of five days a week even if they're just schooled four days a week.

Henderson: Fifteen seconds left. Brad, there are some urban districts that are doing this. Would you ever consider it?

Buck: Yeah, we've actually had informal conversation around it. There's a school district in Missouri that is about our size that went to it a year or two ago. And so, we've kind of been cautiously watching them to see if it's something that we might consider. The biggest challenge, of course, I think is the fifth day. So, what are students doing that is productive and safe on that fifth day when they're not in school? But yeah, we'd be open to it.

Henderson: Well, we have to close this conversation. Gentlemen, thank you for joining us on this edition of Iowa Press.

Thank you.

Thank you, we appreciate the opportunity.

Henderson: You can watch every edition of Iowa Press at For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation.

The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure.

Elite Casino Resorts is rooted in Iowa. Elite's 1,600 employees are our company's greatest asset. A family-run business, Elite supports volunteerism, encourages promotions from within and shares profits with our employees.

Across Iowa, hundreds of neighborhood banks strive to serve their communities, provide jobs and help local businesses. Iowa Banks are proud to back the life you build. Learn more at