School fund increase has muted effect

Friday, May 14, 2004

Projections for next year's state funding are looking up for local school districts, but some educators say the additional funding's impact will be minimized after years of cutbacks.

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released district-by-district estimates Wednesday for the amount of money schools may receive next year compared with 2003-2004 and 2002-2003 funding levels.

The new figures are based on the $2.76 billion education budget passed last week by the state legislature as well as factors subject to change next year such as tax rates, income data and eligible pupil counts.

Although most local schools are expecting an increase over the current year's funding, some officials say it's not enough to start digging themselves out of a financial hole that's only gotten deeper since the legislature stopped fully funding the school revenue system four years ago.

"We're certainly better off than we were thinking we'd be a month or two ago," said Jim Welker, assistant superintendent of finances at Jackson School District.

Welker said he had been warned that next year the funding system, known as the foundation formula, might be funded at a level as low as 75 percent, an all-time low for the current system.

The foundation formula, which was established in 1993 following a lawsuit against the state's former method of distributing money to school districts, has not been fully funded since 2000 due to statewide budget woes.

Under DESE's current predictions, the formula is funded next year at around 89 percent, although state officials warn that 85 percent or 86 percent may be more realistic.

Welker said Jackson schools still have put a hold on most maintenance projects and major purchases. The district eliminated 17 teaching positions last year through attrition and plans to eliminate more this year. An exact number is not yet available.

"We made such a large reduction last year that we're getting to the point where there's not many positions we can reduce," Welker said. "With the reductions we've already made, I think we'll be in better shape than we thought."

Potential impact from the projected funding increases will be even smaller for the Cape Girardeau School District, which could receive an estimated $24,000 raise next year.

Because of the district's status as hold harmless, which is based on local property tax revenue, Cape Girardeau's $35 million budget does not rely heavily on state revenue.

"It will have little if any impact on our budget situation," said superintendent Mark Bowles. "It's good though, to see districts around the state getting sizable increases. A rising tide raises all ships."

For Scott City schools, an additional $104,383 from the state should allow for a new first-grade teacher, rehiring other teachers and maintenance of the district's work with at-risk students.

"This will allow us to bring back some programs," said Scott Amick, a school board member.

The financial impact for the Scott City School District will be more clear after the school board meets later this month, Amick said.

Based on DESE's projections, possible changes in school funding next year range from a loss of $993,000 at Park Hill School District in St. Francois County to an increase of $12.3 million at Fox School District in Jefferson County.

Nell Holcomb School District is one of 18 in the state that actually stands to lose money under DESE's projections for next year in comparison with what they're scheduled to receive this year. The district, which is also hold harmless, may lose an estimated $1,366 over 2003-2004 funding.

"Because we're hold harmless, I didn't think we'd change very much," Fuemmeler said. "The good news is, our funding doesn't go down much when there are budget cuts, but we don't go up much either."

Fuemmeler said with good local tax revenue, his district has not been forced into the cutbacks neighboring schools are facing.

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