Lawmakers make deal on school funding bill

Thursday, May 12, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- House and Senate negotiators on Wednesday crafted a compromise version of legislation to rewrite Missouri's education funding formula. The new plan faces final votes in both chambers but could be forwarded to the governor as early as today.

Gov. Matt Blunt has put pressure on lawmakers to finish the task before the legislative session ends at 6 p.m. Friday or face being called into a special session.

The compromise, which negotiators approved 7-1, closely resembles the House version, which the chamber passed 94-65 at around 3:30 a.m. Wednesday following a 10 1/2 hour debate. That measure would increase state aid to local schools by $940 million over seven years. However, the estimated price tag of the latest version hasn't yet been calculated.

One key area where the Senate position prevailed was deletion of a House provision that would have prevented the proposed formula from taking effect unless a pending lawsuit involving nearly 300 school districts challenging the constitutionality of the existing formula is dropped. State Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, said implementation might never occur if even just a few districts refuse to back down.

"I guarantee there's going to be four districts or five districts that are not going to like this formula," Bartle said.

With the long phase-in period during which the existing formula would remain partially in place, the bill wouldn't immediately resolve the constitutional issues that prompted the lawsuit.

An important remaining House provision potentially would restore the ability of districts to leverage extra state money by offering summer school. Under the present formula, most districts are allowed to double count summer students, thereby increasing their average daily enrollment numbers. It's a key factor in determining how much state money a district receives.

The Senate position would eliminate the double-count as it currently exists. Although there is a perception among school officials that doing so would cost them revenue, that isn't quite the case as the double-count for the current school year is incorporated into the base calculation of the proposed formula.

To address concerns about the issue, however, the House added a provision that could allow schools to count each summer student as 1.25 students starting with the 2009-2010 school year. However, the bonus factor wouldn't kick in unless average statewide summer enrollment drops by 25 percent or more compared to the 2005-2006 term.

While the existing formula is highly sensitive to local property tax rates, the bill assumes all districts have the same levy for the purpose of distributing state funds. The compromise establishes a base levy of $3.43 per $100 assessed valuation. Unlike the present system, the bill would neither reward districts for levies above the base nor punish those with lower levies.

In addition to increases they might enjoy under the formula, Missouri's smallest school districts would also share a special $15 million fund. All 168 districts with fewer than 350 students would split $10 million on a per-pupil basis. Those districts with levies at or above $3.43 would divvy up the remaining $5 million.

Of the 13 Southeast Missouri districts eligible for the fund, four have levies high enough to fully participate:

* Delta in Cape Girardeau County

* Marquand-Zion

* Risco

* Pemiscot County.

The bill is HB 287.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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