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West Burlington Schools Seek Early Start Waiver

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Jason Parrott
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The West Burlington School Board had a busy meeting Monday night, taking a closer look at the start of school and the district's financial future.

Early Start Waiver

The board wants to test the Iowa Department of Education's resolve by applying for an early start waiver so classes can begin on August 13, 2015.

Superintendent Dave Schmitt said the district will push for the mid-August starting date even though the department said it would be much more difficult for districts to obtain waivers to start classes before Labor Day.

"I think our board just wanted to make a point to the (state) and to Governor (Terry) Branstad (that) we believe local control is the best way to run our schools," said Schmitt. 

"Really, it's kind of a way, not to protest, but just to say local control is important."

The issue of early start waivers has pitted school districts against the tourism industry in recent months.  

Educators argue that starting school in mid-August helps with scheduling and improves student performance, while the tourism industry believes waiting until after Labor Day would help hotels, entertainment attractions, and events such as the Iowa State Fair.

Schmitt said West Burlington wishes to start classes in mid-August so it can end its first semester with winter break.

"That is something we believe is important here in West Burlington," said Schmitt.  "We have already been told (by the state) that is not going to fly so we will look at our data and see if there is some retention data we can share with the Department of Education, but to be perfectly blunt, I don't think we have much of a chance of it getting approved."

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It's believed West Burlington might be one of the first districts in Iowa to seek the waiver since the Department of Education changed its approach.

PPEL Renewal

Meanwhile, the school board is looking to members of the community for more help in educating students.

The district's current Physical Plant and Equipment Levy (PPEL) of $0.67/$1000 of assessed valuation is set to expire this summer.

Schmitt said instead of extending the current rate for ten years, the district wants to double it to $1.34/$1000 for the next ten years.  That would generate an extra $200,000 annually, which would go towards building upkeep and new technology.

"The reason we are doubling the PPEL is simple," said Schmitt.  "Ten years ago, we did not have a 1:1 (tablet) initiative and now we do, so that is why we need that $0.67 (increase)."

Securing this additional money could prove to be a challenge.  Residents rejected the extension/increase during a special election several months ago, though the margin was fewer than ten votes.  

With that in mind, the school board voted to place the question back before voters during a special election April 7, 2015.

Schmitt said chances of passing the referendum last fall might have been hurt because it shared ballot space with a roughly $7-million bond issue.

"We admittedly didn't put out enough information about everything we were voting on (at that time)," said Schmitt.  "We know the last bond issue was rushed."

Schmitt said the district and its supporters will make sure people know exactly why the increase is needed and where the money will be spent.

Jason Parrott is a former reporter at Tri States Public Radio.