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Senate gives first round approval to school foundation formula

April 13, 2005
By: Chris Blank
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - With the bulk of the Republicans' legislative priorities making fast progress through the legislature, after almost nine hours of debate, the Senate gave first round approval to the formula used to fund schools just before midnight Tuesday night.

With the cost of the proposed formula exceeding $650 million, Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, who led the effort to make the formula's first wholesale changes since 1993, said a companion bill to help fund the new formula would be debated on the floor before the end of the session.

Shields said he believed the combination of increasing loss limits, levying taxes on gaming and measures such as tightening eligibility to workers' compensation and Medicaid would help to fund the formula.

The impetus to change the formula picked up steam after almost half of the state's districts filed suit against the state, charging the current formula is inequitable.

But Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, said the problem is the underfunding of the current formula, not the formula itself.

"If the formula was not underfunded by as much as it is now, we wouldn't have had the lawsuit," he said. "As long as it was fully funded, its equity and adequacy wasn't being challenged."

Graham said if the existing formula were only to be funded at $652 million, Columbia would stand to gain $16.3 million but would only gain $1.3 million if Shields' formula were fully-funded.

Many St. Louis County school districts would stand to gain from nearly equal funding for Shields' formula compared to the existing one. But St. Louis City schools would receive $20.4 million less with Kansas City schools receiving $18.3 million less.

Shields said it was disingenuous to make the comparison because his formula would need a five-year implementation and Graham's numbers suggest the state could immediately spend $600 million on K-12 education next year.

Shields' proposal, first unveiled in February, would cost about $664 million spread over five years and models the formula after what the state's best performing school districts spend per pupil. The formula would provide additional funds for districts with a higher proportion of students low in English proficiency, enrolled in free and discount lunch, or special education programs than the average of the best performing districts.

The proposed formula, unlike many of the session's other big-ticket issues, breaks down along regional rather than political lines. Floor debate on Monday spread into a free-ranging discussion of issues as diverse as rural school consolidation, property tax assessments and charter schools.

Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, said capping a factor to account for differences in salary across the state at an additional 10 percent was unfair because it did not sufficiently account for additional expenses accrued by urban and suburban school districts. Bartle said school districts, such as those in his suburban Jackson County district, needed more than rural districts to pay higher teacher salaries.

"The reality is that the net effect is that you're moving money from higher levy districts to lower levy districts," Bartle said.

The Senate ultimately voted to remove the 10 percent cap but did not remove an established floor of 1.00. Because of how the entire foundation formula is calculated, no school is likely to receive more than an extra 15 percent added to its state appropriation. This means that, depending on the level of salaries in a school district's county, the state appropriations to the district will be multiplied by a factor between 1.00 and 1.15.

No district in Boone County was affected by the cap removal as many of the districts, including Columbia were slotted to multiply their appropriations by only 3.3 percent.

Although many of the most divisive issues were removed or changed before floor debate, a growing urban-rural divide grew increasingly evident.

Responding to Bartle's criticism of a capped factor for teacher salaries and suggestions by some suburban lawmakers that rural districts needed to consolidate schools, Sen. Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City, said suburban and urban legislators were operating under false assumptions.

"If you're folks and their BMW's would come through the district long enough to see what's happening, they might think differently," said Scott, who represents a rural area south of Kansas City.

Although suburban areas were the beneficiaries of several floor amendments, Sen. David Klindt, R-Bethany, from rural, northwest Missouri, was able to add $5 million to a trust fund for districts with fewer than 300 students.

Rural senators also won a showdown on a proposed certificate of value, which supports said was vital to ensuring the accuracy of assessed property value for tax purposes. Many suburban lawmakers said undervaluation of property in rural areas had put a strain on the system and was one of the main reasons for the problem. Rural senators said certificates of value are an invasion of privacy.

Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said suburban senators misunderstood the issue.

"You pay too much in property taxes; it's not that we, in out-state Missouri pay too little," he said.

The House and Senate must agree to a formula by May 13.