School finances

Sunday, January 25, 2004

The Republican leaders of the Missouri Senate, in announcing goals for this year's legislative session, said the aim is to hold funding for education in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, at the same level as the appropriation this year.

Locally, a group of Cape Girardeau residents said they are concerned enough about school finances to seek a state audit.

First, school funding.

So much misinformation has been spread about what the state has or has not done with school funding in the past couple of years that it's hard to keep everything straight. Claims that the state has cut school funding have been countered by claims that funding has increased. Claims that the legislature is responsible for cutting school funding have been met by claims that the governor is the bad guy.

Here, in its simplest form, is what has happened to school funding in the last two years:

In fiscal year 2004 (the current fiscal year), the legislature appropriated $4.55 billion for elementary and secondary education. The governor initially withheld $195 million of that and later released $75 million, which leaves $120 million that is still being withheld. That means schools are guaranteed $4.43 billion of state funding this year with the possibility the governor could release some if not all of what is being withheld.

In fiscal year 2003, the legislatures appropriated $4.65 billion for elementary and secondary education. But after the governor's withholdings that year, only $4.36 billion was spent.

At a minimum, more state funding will go to elementary secondary education in the current fiscal year than in fiscal year 2003, even though the legislature appropriated less this year.

The GOP plan to keep the appropriation for education in the next fiscal year at the same level as this year means that, without any withholding, $120 million more would be spent on schools. This would be on top of the 85 percent ($2.1 billion) increase for schools since 1993 when the Outstanding School Act tax increase went into effect.

Caution: Playing games with figures is a political exercise that misleads taxpayers. The governor demeans his office by such demagoguery.

Now, the proposed audit.

The organizers of a petition drive in Cape Girardeau to get the 1,502 signatures needed for a state audit of the school district cite concerns about the way funds are being spent. While district officials say annual audits by an outside accounting firm provide adequate accountability, a state audit would delve deeper into how resources are being allocated.

A state audit could cost $16,000 to $24,000 to be paid by the district -- which has a $35 million budget for the current fiscal year.

Caution: Taxpayer-initiated audits are an indication that much more is stake than finances. If the word of elected and appointed officials no longer satisfies 1,502 taxpayers willing to sign a petition, there would be serious problems with trust.

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