Central Rivers AEA, area school district leaders react to new law

The Central Rivers Area Education Agency (AEA), which is based in Cedar Falls and has a satellite office at 909 S. 12th St. in Marshalltown, serves all of the public school districts in Tama County. PHOTO BY ROBERT MAHARRY

DES MOINES — Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the much discussed Area Education Agencies (AEA) reform bill into law last Wednesday, just a day after the Iowa Senate approved the legislation.

House File 2612 (HF2612) passed the Senate last Tuesday on a 30-18 vote, with Sen. Annette Sweeney (R-Iowa Falls) in favor of it. The bill passed the House on March 21 with a 51-43 vote as Rep. Dean Fisher (R-Montour) also voted in favor.

While the signed bill is not as controversial as the first draft, the final result still creates challenges and unknowns for the Central Rivers AEA and area school districts. Central Rivers AEA Chief Administrator Joel Pedersen said the entire process of moving HF2612 to the governor’s desk and signing into law was rather fast, in his view.

“This is a system built in over 50 years, and in two and a half months, the system was changed quite a bit,” he said. “I think there was certainly disappointment with the bill and the process.”

Marshalltown Community School District Superintendent Theron Schutte was not surprised with how quickly it moved, nor with Reynolds’ signature.

“It is what it is, and we’ll have to figure out the best way to move forward now that they have approved it,” he said.

Pedersen said they are in the process of working with the MCSD.

“We are trying to process and protect,” he said. “We will sit down and talk about things with Marshalltown and their uses of the AEA; what they continue to use, things they are not sure about. The district will have to talk about what services they want to keep.”

Schutte said the MCSD has enjoyed a strong partnership with the AEA for their special education, media and educational services for a long time.

“The part we are most interested in focusing on is how to ensure the educational service piece continues to be provided,” he said. “The easy fall back is to continue with the AEA, but we’re going to have to evaluate because so much is unknown.”

Pedersen said Marshalltown is not the only district which will have to make such decisions. Central Rivers serves all of the districts within Marshall, Tama, Grundy and Hardin counties, and Pedersen himself even served as the interim superintendent at GMG for a time while now former Superintendent Kym Stein was on medical leave.

“All of the districts’ decisions will impact what the AEA will do,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of talk in the next few years.”

South Tama County Superintendent John Cain, who is set to take on a shared role with North Tama in the fall, said he had a meeting with Central Rivers scheduled for Wednesday, as well as a superintendent meeting on Thursday to discuss the impact the changes will have on area districts.

“At this time, I would anticipate that we will continue to utilize our AEA to the greatest extent. We will have that option with many of the special education aspects. Our hope would be that the AEA can continue to provide the level of services they have in the past,” Cain said. “As far as media services and general education services, I believe we will learn more in the coming weeks. We have recently added a highly qualified director of curriculum to our team. We have been able to do this due to our operational sharing savings. Additionally, we moved in this direction in anticipation of the AEA general education services decreasing.”

Cain added that the district benefits from having “great relationships” and “excellent quality of services” from its AEA consultants.

“We capitalize on skill sets of individuals within the AEA for SIOP, LETRS, ESSA, Math and much more. Our hope is for these services to continue in some capacity,” he said.

What the AEA will be able to provide depends on which districts continue to partner with them, Schutte said. He is concerned about the ability of the AEAs to provide quality at reasonable costs.

“For the AEAs, the largest dollars come from the largest districts,” he said. “If those districts use funding in a way that does not include the AEA, that significantly impacts everyone.”

North Tama Superintendent David Hill, who is set to take over as the next superintendent at Waverly-Shell Rock in the fall, shares the same worry of the long-term stability of the AEA services that districts large, small and in-between rely on.

“Over the long term, I believe it could create inequities throughout the state of Iowa, especially in the area of special education,” he said.

An indirect impact of the law on Central Rivers employees has already appeared. Fortunately, Pedersen said they will not have to eliminate some positions within the next year — a “courageous” decision made by the board. However, some staff members have already left.

“It’s difficult,” Pedersen said. “There is a lot of uncertainty, lots of resignations. They’re going out of state or into private practice.”

Schutte said the loss of AEA staff members just makes providing quality services much harder.

“They’re going to districts or other places to have job security,” he said. “So, there’s no guarantee the AEA is going to be able to fill the vacated positions they currently have or the positions that will be vacated before the school year.”


One difference from the original proposal that Pedersen appreciates is the change to state special education funding. The first draft allocated all of the funding to the school districts, but the law now sends 90 percent of that money to the AEAs starting with the 2025-26 school year. The remaining 10 percent will transfer to the districts.

Central Rivers Director of Communications and Creative Services Beth Strike said the fact that there is some funding still available for media and educational services is also an improvement. The original bill completely eliminated media services funding. The signed law will send 60 percent of media services money to districts and the remaining 40 to the AEAs beginning in July. However, in July 2025, 100 percent of that funding will go to the school districts.

“That is the most significant adjustment that is better than the original plan had,” Schutte said.

The challenge for Marshalltown, Schutte said, is that the district did not ask for any of this.

“We certainly were not in favor of a paid for service model,” Schutte said. “The whole reason for the AEA is to consolidate money and services so you can get services at a better cost. My belief is it will cost us more to seek out private providers.”

Teacher pay

The law does not just make changes to the AEA system, but also to salaries of school employees. It increases teacher starting salaries to $50,000. Teachers with 12 years of experience will receive a salary of $62,000.

Support staff will also get a bump in hourly pay. That aspect of the bill can create hardship for the smaller districts. As a former superintendent, Pedersen said he understands the struggle the smaller districts could go through.

“It could lend to a struggle to meet basic needs,” he said. “They’re going to have to make tough decisions.”

Fortunately, Schutte said the pay increase, which the district was in support of, will not impact Marshalltown too much. Starting MCSD salaries are close to the new requirements. However, the increase has caused a delay in negotiations and for contracts to be issued, which is problematic, in Schutte’s view.

“I know it’s going to create some changes that need to be made in the budget,” he said. “We will continue to march forward with the budget we proposed, but we will have to amend it.”

Hill said he is excited to learn the specifics of how the teacher salary supplement funding will work and appreciates the state elected officials recognizing the importance of the work done by teachers and school staff. However, he does have one concern.

“Districts have had to deal with so many new laws in recent years that haven’t been backed by appropriate funding,” Hill said. “While I don’t think this new teacher pay legislation will be a completely unfunded mandate, I’m worried it might end up being a partially funded mandate which could hurt districts financially. Until the state provides districts with the actual funding that we can expect to receive, we won’t know for sure.”