Small school districts garner extra money

Sunday, June 12, 2005

The change could mean a tripling, quadrupling or better in the amount of state money.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Given that the state distributes roughly $3 billion a year to local schools, an extra $15 million may seem insignificant. For Missouri's smallest school systems, however, that amount could make a major difference in how much state funding they receive.

In passing a bill to rewrite the state's education funding distribution formula, the legislature created a special fund independent of the new formula to be allocated among the approximately 170 Missouri districts with fewer than 350 students.

For the 15 Southeast Missouri districts expected to share in the small schools fund, it could mean a tripling, quadrupling or better in the amount of state money they would receive compared to what they would get from the formula alone during the 2006-2007 school year, the first year the bill will be implemented.

In terms of financial impact, the Altenburg School District in Perry County might be one of the fund's biggest beneficiaries. Altenburg is estimated to get just $1,445 in new money from the formula in 2006-2007 but $30,081 from the small schools fund. As a result, its total estimated funding boost from the state would be nearly 22 times higher than if the district only was getting money through the formula.

Pemiscot County R-III School District superintendent Anthony Hartsfield said his district is in a similar situation.

"The new formula is not going to help me at all," Hartsfield said. "The only help I'm getting is from the small schools fund."

Under early drafts of the bill that didn't include a small schools set-aside, nearly all of the districts that would have received little or no additional state funding were those that serve very few pupils, an indication the formula resulted in a bias against such districts.

To address that concern, lawmakers agreed to provide an extra $15 million a year for the smallest districts to share. The first $10 million would be divided among all districts with fewer than 350 students. Only districts with a property tax rate of $3.43 per $100 assessed valuation or higher would split the remaining $5 million.

Just three Southeast Missouri districts -- Pemiscot County R-III, Marquand-Zion and Risco -- have levies high enough to access that second portion.

Kelso School District superintendent David Newell said he is glad the legislature took a step to preserve the financial solvency of tiny rural districts.

"We have to do something to protect small schools or they are going to be forced into consolidation," Newell said.

Small districts typically don't have much prospect of increasing their state aid because of their low pupil counts, Bell City School District superintendent Rhonda Niemczyk said.

Zalma School District superintendent Darryl Sauer said one of the biggest issues school systems such as his struggle with is offering competitive pay to teachers and other employees. He said the small schools fund should help alleviate that problem.

"I assume some of that money will go to raising salaries for teachers and staff members."

Other area districts expected to participate in the fund, according to research by Senate Appropriations staff, are Leopold, Delta R-V (Cape Girardeau County), Gideon, Cooter, Delta C-7 (Pemiscot County), Ripley County R-IV, Ripley County R-III and Oran.

Based on last year's attendance figures, the Oak Ridge School District in Cape Girardeau County -- with 378 students -- would just miss the extra money.

The list of eligible districts, however, is based on average daily attendance during the 2003-2004 school year. Districts that experience student population growth that takes them above the 350-pupil threshold would no longer be eligible for the fund, while those that lose enough students to fall under the cutoff would gain access.

Gov. Matt Blunt has not yet signed the measure into law but is expected to do so.

The bill is SB 287.

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