Keystone AEA administrator weighs in on proposed changes

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Keystone AEA Administrator Stan Rheingans

Covering 22 school districts across Allamakee, Chickasaw, Clayton, Delaware, Dubuque, Fayette, Howard and Winneshiek counties, Keystone is one of nine regional AEAs that provides special education services, media and curriculum, instruction and assessment and professional development support to Iowa children, families and educators.

The AEA services highlighted in yellow are what could be cut through a proposed bill that would overhaul the AEA system.

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register


This is part two in a series exploring how proposed changes to Iowa’s Area Education Agencies will have a local impact.


A proposed overhaul of Iowa’s Area Education Agencies (AEA) would impact vital educational services, local control and the northeast Iowa economy, according to Keystone AEA Administrator Stan Rheingans.


Covering 22 school districts across Allamakee, Chickasaw, Clayton, Delaware, Dubuque, Fayette, Howard and Winneshiek counties, Keystone is one of nine regional AEAs that provides special education services, media and curriculum, instruction and assessment and professional development support to Iowa children, families and educators. 


Gov. Kim Reynolds called for major changes to the AEA system in her condition of the state address earlier this month, and a bill released shortly after proposes focusing AEAs solely on special education needs, and providing districts with funds directly to pay for services.


Rheingans described the few weeks since House Study Bill 542 was released as a “whirlwind.”


“I’ve been paying attention, talking to a lot of legislators and certainly a lot of superintendents, saying, ‘What do you need from us? What do we need to tell legislators?’” he said.


The AEA system dates back to 1974, but Rheingans is relatively new to it. He became Keystone AEA Administrator a year and a half ago, after a decade as a superintendent in Dubuque Schools and other positions there the previous eight.


“I came to the AEA for a reason. I’ve always really respected the AEA system and the work they do. I have three kids, and I know, because I’m an educator, how their education was enhanced because of the AEA system,” Rheingans said. “I also taught out of state for a time where there isn’t an AEA system. It was a struggle to have the materials I needed and professional development I needed. And when you come from a state where there isn’t one to one where there is, or if you leave a state where there is one and go to one where there isn’t, it’s very eye opening as an educator what you have either gained or lost by that.”


Rheingans said a thorough review or task force investigating the AEA system was anticipated.


“In my mind, that was to figure out what’s going really well and let’s keep doing that, what’s going OK and how do we improve that, or are there some things AEAs are doing that maybe we ought not to do and some other agency can do,” he explained. “When it came out as strong as it did, changing the way we do special education and eliminating the educational services and the media department, that was a pretty big surprise.”


Now, Iowa’s AEAs—including Rheingans—are on a mission to educate others on what exactly they do. 


It’s something the AEAs haven’t necessarily focused on the past 50 years, Rheingans said.


“It was sort of this service mindset, and our work is always to hold up or build up the local districts. We wanted to be in the background,” he shared. “The fallout to that is not everybody knows what we do.”


“If you’re a parent of a special education student or a teacher, you probably do,” Rheingans continued, “but that’s only a portion of the community. A lot of folks don’t know our media materials go to every classroom in northeast Iowa. They can check out robotics and planetariums as well as books. We do lots of professional development for teachers, for administrators. A lot of the implementation for different initiatives the Department of Ed has. Every student is impacted by the AEA, either directly through special education or indirectly through the work we do with the districts or the materials we provide. To me, it’s vital we continue to do that. It’s vital for all the districts.”


Rheingans said Keystone AEA is unique in its makeup. It serves districts as large as Dubuque, which graduates 800 students annually, and those as small as Eastern Allamakee, with class sizes ranging from 25 to 30 students. That’s 32,000 students total across 22 school districts—one of the smaller AEAs.


That small size helps Keystone build individual relationships with districts, according to Rheingans.


“If somebody asks us for something, for a service or support in some way, or they have an urgent situation, we can be there same day, next day. The size allows us to be very reactive to the needs of our districts,” he said.


The bulk of AEA services—75 percent—are in special education. Although another version of the bill is on its way, Rheingans said the bill in its initial state would leave the other 25 percent at risk of being cut. This includes roughly three dozen services ranging from college and career readiness supports, crisis emergency support, library and digital resources and design, lamination and printing services to trainings, school improvement planning and infrastructure and instructional supports.


“It’s 25 percent of the work, but they are vital things districts count on. It will be life-changing for districts if we don’t do things. They’ll have to figure out a way to have those services. That’s the concern they have,” Rheingans said.


He believes AEA services are vital no matter the size of the school district, but especially so for northeast Iowa’s smaller, rural districts.


“They don’t have the same size, therefore the ability to afford some of the positions we provide, the expertise we provide in special education, the media materials and professional development. Access to those things is vital if we’re going to keep improving the education of students,” Rheingans said.


Also at risk with the proposed changes? Local control. Authority, and many positions, would land in Des Moines. 


“If you are in northeast Iowa or southwest Iowa, it will impact that relationship. And relationships matter,” Rheingans said. “I think education is about relationships. Educational systems and leadership is about relationships. We’re governed by a board, and our board is elected by the local school boards they serve. When you’re board driven, local leadership gives a local voice, a local context, to the decisions we make.”


Keystone AEA has an office contiguous to each of its school districts. Sixty-five employees are assigned to the Elkader office, many who live within a commutable distance. Those jobs, and the potential loss of any of them, would have an economic impact, said Rheingans. 


“We also have some professional development facilities, so we’ll have multiple times per month folks from all over northeast Iowa converge here for professional development, meetings, to get better at what they do. The local impact is those folks stop and get coffee before the meeting, we have lunch somehow and they shop after the meetings are over. I can’t really quantify,” Rheingans said, “but I would have to think it’s significant—the 65 employees plus the fact we bring hundreds of people in on a regular basis.”


Rheingans acknowledged a lot could change as HSB542 is reviewed. He feels discussions with legislators have been positive. 


“They’re hearing from a lot of folks concerned about this, receiving hundreds of emails about it. That is great. That’s what our representatives need to know,” he said. “I think it’s powerful when people say, ‘Hey, this is how it would impact me and please reconsider.’” 


He encourages people to keep sharing their stories with representatives.


“I want to make sure they continue to hear from a local economic impact, from an educational impact, from a local control or voice impact. It’s important to keep the AEAs as they currently are structured. That’s my opinion,” Rheingans said.

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