Lawmakers begin study to address school funding

Wednesday, September 3, 2003

DAVID CARSON * St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Billy McDonnell, 12, from Clayton, left, gave a horse a carrot as a treat after a therapy session at Longview Farm Park in Town and Country, Mo., as volunteer Amie Edmondson, right, kept the horse under control.By Marc Powers ~ Southeast Missourian

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A special legislative committee began work Tuesday that could lead to an overhaul of the state's method for funding local school districts.

State Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said the panel, which he chairs, will look at all aspects of education in crafting a framework bill for consideration in the 2004 legislative session.

However, the primary goal is to address the funding issue through legislative action and avoid the possibility of court-imposed changes.

"If we don't get it done next year, it will be done by the courts, and I don't want to see that happen," said state Sen. Doyle Childers, R-Reeds Spring.

A coalition of 147 school districts, including 29 from Southeast Missouri, is expected to file a lawsuit against the state by the end of the year. The group claims the existing formula no longer fulfills its purpose of fairly allocating state funds among wealthy and poorer districts and that the current $4.55 billion state education budget is inadequate.

The Joint Interim Committee on Education consists primarily of senators and representatives who are former teachers or school administrators, as well as veteran lawmakers who played key roles in drafting the existing formula.

Hearings in the fall

The panel will hold hearings around the state this fall, though no date is currently planned in Southeast Missouri.

In 1993, Cole County Circuit Court Judge Byron Kinder ruled the state's old education formula unconstitutional. Lawmakers responded that year by passing the Outstanding Schools Act, which sought to lessen the financial disparities among districts.

Schools generate most of their local revenue through property taxes. Because property values vary widely, districts with high values can raise large amounts of revenue with relatively low tax rates, while those with low property values bring in much less money, even with higher tax rates.

The goal of the formula is for each district to receive the same amount of total revenue -- state and local combined -- per penny of local property tax. To achieve that, districts with less local wealth receive a greater share of state funding.

But with the formula roughly $500 million short of being fully funded, districts that heavily rely on state revenue are struggling.

John Jones, a lobbyist for the Missouri State Teachers Association, said local revenue for the current school year is expected to increase by more than $200 million. However, the bulk of that new revenue is going to wealthier districts that receive relatively little state money.

"The problem with growth in those revenues is it is very uneven across the state," Jones said.

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