Education bill brings threat by governor

Wednesday, May 4, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Gov. Matt Blunt on Tuesday said he will call the Missouri Legislature into a special legislative session if it fails to produce a new funding system for public schools before its scheduled adjournment on May 13.

After passing the Senate with relative ease, legislation to rewrite the formula for distributing state money to local school districts hit a snag in the House Special Committee on Education Funding, which last Thursday voted 14-9 against forwarding the measure to the full House. In a news conference, Blunt outlined his plan for reviving the bill, along with his threat of a special session.

"We would indeed have a special session if necessary to craft a new formula," Blunt said. "I am optimistic we will be able to craft a new formula within the regular session."

The opposition of urban and suburban lawmakers was the primary reason for the committee defeat. Those lawmakers were unhappy with committee changes that reduced the amount of additional state money that could be leveraged by districts in regions with higher than average wages, primarily those in metropolitan areas.

The governor said he supports the Senate version with some modifications, including setting aside a larger pool of money for grants to very small school districts.

Blunt wants the new formula phased in over seven years, starting with the 2006-2007 school year and ending with the 2012-2013 term. His plan would require the state to spend an additional $970 million on education by the end of that period.

The Senate version carries a $689 million price tag with the money phased in over five years ending with the 2010-2011 school year.

The education funding committee is scheduled to meet at noon today and could reconsider its earlier vote. State Rep. Gayle Kingery, a Poplar Bluff Republican who voted for the bill, predicted the pressure from Blunt likely will revive the measure.

"The governor's position will probably get some people to change their minds and vote for it," Kingery said.

State Rep. Terry Swinger, D-Caruthersville, said he's not swayed to change his no vote. While an improvement, he said the bill doesn't do enough to address the existing funding disparity between wealthy and poor districts.

"Those richer districts are still going to have more money," Swinger said.

The new formula would mark a major philosophical shift in how Missouri distributes education funds. Instead of a system based on local taxes, the bill aims to allocate money based on student needs in a given district. Some Southeast Missouri school officials said they approve of the overall concept but are concerned about some of the details or the lack thereof.

With no plan for paying for the new formula and a long phase-in period, Dexter superintendent Kenneth Jackson wonders if schools will truly enjoy a boost in state aid.

"There is no guarantee any of this is going to come to pass because there is no money to support it," Jackson said.

Although the new formula would move away from a tax-driven system, it would use the amount of local revenue districts currently generate as a key factor. Many lawmakers have long argued the amount of local revenue is being grossly undervalued in some rural counties, resulting in districts in those areas getting more state money than they deserve.

Cape Girardeau superintendent Mark Bowles said the state needs to address the issue of poor property assessment practices before adopting a new formula.

"Once you get something in place and it is locked in, those errors in assessments are also locked in," Bowles said.

Blunt proposes commissioning a study of statewide assessment practices. If that study reveals problems, they could be fixed later, he said.

Since the revised formula wouldn't begin to take effect until July 2006, Kennett superintendent Jim Callewaert said it might be best for lawmakers to take more time to ensure they get it right.

"I would hate to see something pass now and then lots of questions and kinks come up along the way," Callewaert said.

The bill is SB 237.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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