Local public school admins urge Gov. Parson to veto omnibus education bill due to funding concerns

Public school administrators in Southeast Missouri are urging Gov. Mike Parson to veto a massive omnibus education bill that would increase private school tax credits, establish a charter school in Boone County and raise teacher salaries with seemingly no funding increase to cover costs.
Associated Press file

A 150-plus page education bill that has passed through the state House of Representatives and Senate has local public school administrators urging Gov. Mike Parson to veto it.

Concerns surrounding Senate Bill 727 — which evolved from a 12-page bill into the multifaceted legislation it is — include a $25 million expansion of private school tax credits, establishment of a charter school in Boone County that some administrators fear will lead to charter school expansion around the state and increased teacher salaries with no apparent mandate to increase funding for schools to cover the added costs. The bill passed the House 82-69 on April 18, receiving the minimum number of "yes" votes required. Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden signed the bill Monday, April 22, and House Speaker Dean Plotcher signed it Wednesday, April 24.

With the bill on his desk, Parson now has 15 days to sign, veto or let the bill become law if he takes no action.

"If people put pressure on (Parson) to really look at this bill and how detrimental it is to public education — he needs to veto this bill," Cape Girardeau Public Schools superintendent Howard Benyon said. "The only saving grace that we have currently is just for people in our community and across the state to start emailing him and start sending him letters that they do not agree with this bill, and we would want him to veto it."

Benyon said his main concern lies with the expansion of the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program, also known as MOScholars, and a lack of guaranteed funds to help public school districts across the state cover the costs associated with the bill.

"Basically, it’s a massive unfunded mandate, and there’s no assurance that we’re going to be getting any funding to help roll out this bill," Benyon said. "One of the big ones for me is the current version of the bill adds the growth of the state voucher program to formula increases. We only have so much of the pie, and when they start taking dollars away from the pie, it shortens the amount of slice that we get. The state only gets a certain amount of dollars, so every time they start giving dollars to something else, it takes away from the school districts’ funding and that makes us really vulnerable to cuts in order to fund the increases in the formula and the voucher program that they have in there."

According to Benyon, Cape Girardeau schools likely won’t be affected by the requirement to raise teacher pay, which increases the minimum salary of teachers from $25,000 to $40,000 and increases the minimum for teachers with a master’s degree and at least 10 years of experience from $33,000 to $46,000 with yearly $1,000 increases until the minimum reaches $48,000 for the 2027-28 school year.

"I think it’s important that we raise teacher salaries," Benyon said. "That’s probably one of the most important things that we are doing in our district is trying to look for ways to continue to increase teachers and support staff salaries. ... I’m not just looking at our district, I’m looking at the state as a whole. It’s just not a good way of approaching that because, No. 1, they have not earmarked any dollars moving forward that assures us that they’re going to give us dollars to offset those costs to increase salaries. Once you increase the salary, it increases your whole salary schedule, and that’s a few dollars that you have to make sure that you’re budgeting for to make sure that you’re able to pay those teachers $40,000 a year at Step 1."

Delta School District superintendent David Heeb echoed Benyon’s sentiment.

"I am 1,000% in favor of giving teachers a raise," Heeb said. "I wish they would have simply passed a bill with only a raise for teachers in it. I think we could have done that. I don’t know one principal or superintendent that opposes that kind of bill.

"So, to sum up my thoughts, I hope the governor vetoes this bill and sends it back with a note that says, ‘Give the teachers a raise and cut everything else.’ He would get a standing ovation from everybody in education — teachers, administrators, students and parents — if he did that."

In addition to Benyon and Heeb, other public school administrators also spoke out against the passage of the bill, including Chaffee School District superintendent Shawn Nix and Oran superintendent Adam Friga.

"My biggest concern is the teacher pay requirement without guarantees from the state government to help fund it," Nix said. "Teachers deserve and need an increase in wages, I don’t think that is a question. However, local district funding can only go so far to meet the minimums set forth in the bill. If the bill is allowed to become law, we as a school district will have to closely monitor the budget to ensure that we continue to offer a well-balanced education for our students and salaries for our teachers. I would hope the governor would veto the bill so the legislature could take the issue up again and put in language that ensures state funding.”

"The fact that we are having conversations and legislation to increase teacher pay is welcomed," Friga said. "The concern I have with Senate Bill 727 is that there are no assurances to fund these mandated increases for teacher compensation. School districts that do not have the fund balances to support these large expenditures will be faced with tough decisions that will negatively impact kids and communities. Scheduled tax cuts and state revenue projections do not support the heavy financial commitments Senate Bill 727 calls for, and that is very concerning.

"The one positive thing I have seen from this bill is that it has unified superintendents to advocate for their schools and communities. Public education is a powerful organization when we all work together.”

On the other side, District 148 (Scott and Mississippi counties) Rep. Jamie Burger — who voted in favor of the bill along with District 147 (City of Cape Girardeau) Rep. John Voss, who could not be reached for comment — said he feels the bill provides an appropriate amount of money for public schools. District 147 (Cape Girardeau County) Rep. Barry Hovis was absent from the vote.

Burger admitted he’s not "keen" on expanding the private-school voucher program or expanding charter schools and acknowledged the concerns of local school administrations, but touted the potential immediate positives of SB 727 as to why he voted "yes".

"This bill here has a lot of money for public education," Burger said. "At the same time, it expands the voucher program and would create a charter school in Boone County, which is Columbia, per se. But when I look at the amount of money that they were putting toward public education, I just thought it would be a windfall of money for our school districts back home."

While acknowledging problems with the bill, Burger laid out what he believes are some of the initial benefits public schools will receive from its passage.

"I think it’s a concern, but I think, at the same time, they have to look at the amount of money they’re going to receive initially as part of the passage of this bill. I don’t think anybody ever talks about that, but the five-day school week gives them a 2% bump, an education formula bump is there, fully-funding transportation is there and a small-school grant opportunity went from $15 million to $30 million — which basically goes from $400 per student to $800 per student. ... If I told you I was going to give you $1,000 a year for the next 10 years, and I had some of that money already but in years four, five, six, seven, eight, nine or 10, I may not have it. Would you take the first $1,000?"

As administrators worry about possible financial setbacks, Burger said he’s received support for the bill from several local teachers.

"I’ve talked to several (teachers) about that and, as a matter of fact, I’ve helped a lot of them," Burger said. "But at the same time, there’s a lot of money initially that they’re going to receive that is in the bill. Another thing, too, I had I don’t know how many teachers call me wanting me to vote for their raise. ... There were some teachers together and they called me — I know them personally — and they said, ‘Jamie, how are you going to vote on the teachers raises?' I told them all the things about the bill, pros and cons, goods and bads, and their next question was, ‘How are you going to vote on our raises?' When you’re making $32,000 and you’re a wife who has two children at home, what’s your concern?"

For full summary of SB 727, visit https://www.senate.mo.gov/24info/BTS_Web/Bill.aspx?SessionType=R&BillID=244.