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Legislators meets to debate Iowa education plan

Catherine Lucey, Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Members of a joint House-Senate committee trying to reach a compromise plan on new education spending agreed Tuesday that they shared some common ground, though how long it will take to make a deal is unclear.

Lawmakers from both parties expressed optimism they could work out their differences on Republican Gov. Terry Branstad's proposal to improve education in Iowa

"My objective is to try and get the agreement between the Senate plan and the House plan sooner than later," said Rep. Ron Jorgensen, a Republican from Sioux City who chairs the House education committee. "I'm prepared to meet morning noon and night, whatever it takes."

The Senate and the House have developed different versions of Branstad's $187 million plan to improve Iowa schools. Branstad proposes boosting minimum teacher salaries from $28,000 to $35,000 and providing incentive pay to teachers who take on extra responsibilities.

The House watered down the plan in February, approving a version that would lower the salary minimums to $32,000 and allow districts to opt out of the salary hikes and leadership pay. But the Senate later approved a plan that would put the salary minimums back at $35,000 and require districts to choose from several options for a leadership incentive pay program.

The Senate plan also would provide more basic funding to schools. Their bill would offer a 4 percent general funding increase to school districts for the 2013-2014 school year, and another 4 percent in the 2014-2015 school year. That's more than the 2 percent increases approved by the House. Branstad did not include any general funding increases in his budget, saying he wanted to first act on his education plan.

During Tuesday's meeting, Jorgensen discussed the House version of the bill and Sen. Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat from Ames who chairs the Senate education committee, explained the Senate version. Both agreed there was overlap, though leadership pay and general school funding could be sticking points.

Quirmbach declined to say how long the process could take.

"I think school districts want us to do good policy rather than quick policy," Quirmbach said. "We want to give them something they can implement and use to improve their systems for the long haul. I think we have a fair number of elements where we have either a common view or a view that is reasonably compatible."

Branstad said Monday that he'd like to see a deal struck on education as soon as possible.

"I believe it can be worked out," Branstad said. "This is the year we need to pass major education reform. It can all happen quickly."

While legislative negotiations continue on education, school administrators say they are left without information about general school funding as a deadline looms for district budget plans. Districts are required to certify budgets by April 15, though they can make some changes after that deadline.

Des Moines Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Ahart said the district was planning to certify a budget Tuesday night, without all the necessary funding information from the state. Ahart said the lack of resolution in the Capitol is a challenge.

"It's hugely problematic. We do a tremendous amount of work in the spring and summer for the following year," said Ahart. "A lot of the work needs to be put on hold, because we don't know."