House panel resurrects education funding bill

Thursday, May 5, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- With political pressure mounting, a House committee on Wednesday revived an education funding bill it had defeated last week.

After making modifications intended to appease urban and suburban lawmakers who helped derail the bill, the committee voted 15-8 to forward it to the full House for further debate. All five Republicans who previously opposed the measure, joined by one Democrat, switched sides to put the bill back on track.

The committee's action came one day after Republican Gov. Matt Blunt threatened to haul lawmakers back into a special legislative session if they failed to pass the bill before adjourning for the year on May 13. The measure cleared the Senate last month.

The bill would rewrite Missouri's formula for distributing state money to local school districts. The plan approved by the committee and endorsed by Blunt calls for increasing the $2.4 billion the state currently allocates to public schools by $940 million over seven years.

The new formula would be phased in starting with the 2006-2007 school year and be completely implemented with the 2012-2013 term. However, lawmakers have yet to come up with a plan to pay for it.

State Rep. Brian Baker, R-Belton, said the delayed implementation will buy lawmakers time to find a funding source.

"By phasing it in and doing what we're doing, we'll be able to afford it," said Baker, the bill's sponsor.

None of the three Southeast Missouri lawmakers on the committee switched their positions. Republican Gayle Kingery of Poplar Bluff remained a supporter while Democrats Terry Swinger of Caruthersville and J.C. Kuessner of Eminence again voted no.

With the concessions to suburban and urban interests, Kuessner said the bill as currently written is worse than the version the committee defeated.

A key change restores the more generous factor approved by the Senate that would allow districts in areas with higher than average wages to leverage more state money. The House committee initially wanted to lessen the role of wages in determining how much districts receive.

"I want to see that brought back down," Kuessner said.

The committee stuck by its position that the wage modifier be calculated on regional basis rather than county by county. Baker said the regional approach would benefit districts in counties on the fringes of metropolitan areas.

Another provision intended to mollify urban and suburban lawmakers calls for a review of statewide property assessment practices. Many lawmakers have long argued property in some counties, particularly rural areas, is being grossly undervalued. With more accurate assessments, they claim school districts in counties where property is undervalued would generate more local revenue, freeing up additional state money for all districts to share.

"I think that study will be a waste of money," Kuessner said. "We already have assessment procedures that are working."

House Speaker Pro Tem Carl Bearden, R-St. Charles, said the problem isn't as big as some think but that the argument should be put to rest.

"Until we do a study to prove or disprove it, we are always going to have this discussion and sling arrows at each other," Bearden said. "We ought to get it over with."

The new formula would shift from a system based on local tax levies to one that aims to distribute funding based on student needs.

Under the current formula, districts must maintain a property tax levy of $2.75 per $100 assessed valuation to fully benefit from available state funding. Districts with higher levies can leverage more state money, while those with lower levies are punished with less.

The new formula would assume all districts have a $3.50 levy, up from the $3.35 levy approved by the Senate. Districts with higher or lower levies would be neither rewarded nor punished with regard to their shares of state funding. The higher the local tax burden, however, the more total money a district has to spend.

Districts with disproportionate numbers of poor or disabled students as well as those who aren't proficient in English would receive extra funding.

The bill would also set aside $15 million for grants to small districts with fewer than 350 students.

The bill is SB 287.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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