School groups push for education funds

Saturday, September 6, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Educators and school lobbying groups on Friday urged lawmakers to pump substantially more money into education to reverse the devastating effects they say state budget cuts have had on most Missouri school districts.

Dr. Larry Ewing, superintendent of the Fort Osage School District in Jackson County, said the refusal of the Republican-controlled Missouri Legislature to consider tax increases has shifted more of the burden of funding education to local taxpayers, who are being asked to make up lost state revenue by approving higher property levies.

"Some legislators have stated that schools should turn back to the local taxpayer to shoulder more of the responsibility," Ewing said. "I must admit to finding this proposed solution ironic given that some of these elected officials are the very ones touting no new taxes."

Ewing said his district has lost nearly $3.6 million in state money over the last two fiscal years.

The comments came during an education summit organized by Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat. While the speakers included representatives of education groups that traditionally favor Republicans, no GOP lawmakers testified.

The various speakers said the financial crunch has forced many districts to eliminate teaching and staff positions, drop course offerings and freeze employee salaries.

Ray Patrick, executive director of the Missouri Association of Rural Schools, said not all districts have the ability to raise sufficient funds locally and must rely on state support. While districts in affluent areas can meet their needs with relatively low property taxes, those in poorer areas would have to set unrealistically high tax rates to generate the same amount of revenue.

"Our people are not able to pay those kind of dollars because many of these communities are low income to begin with," Patrick said.

Two vetoes

Holden twice vetoed the budgets for public schools and higher education for the current fiscal year, saying the spending authorized by the legislature was inadequate. He ultimately signed the budget measures to avoid shutting down Missouri schools.

Although the governor has repeatedly called for tax increases to avoid further cuts to education and other state services, support among Republican lawmakers has been nonexistent.

A special legislative session will begin Monday to consider Holden's latest proposal to raise $44 million by eliminating certain corporate tax breaks.

Terry Dunn, the president of J.E. Dunn Construction in Kansas City, said a stronger educational system capable of producing a skilled workforce is the linchpin of economic development and worth the financial investment.

"The need for addition money is clear to me as a business owner and a taxpayer," Dunn said. "I urge the legislature to consider all revenue options."

To bring the current budget in balance, Holden has withheld $190 million in approved spending from elementary and secondary education and another $20 million from higher education.

A group of school districts in suburban Kansas City filed a lawsuit challenging the governor's authority to hold back money earmarked for free public education.

However, former Missouri Supreme Court Judge John Bardgett said the state constitution clearly outlines the governor's power.

"He has the authority, in our opinion, to withhold from any appropriation to avoid spending money the state doesn't have and won't have," said Bardgett, who is now practices law in Jefferson City.

But Bardgett said another pending lawsuit claiming state education money is inadequate and unfairly distributed is likely to succeed.

Alex Bartlett, the Jefferson City lawyer handling that case, said that as of Friday morning 191 of the Missouri's 524 school districts had signed on as plaintiffs. Only 87 districts joined a similar legal challenge a decade ago that prompted lawmakers to substantially boost education spending.

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