Government & Politics

A year after boosting K-12 schools, Missouri senators could shortchange education

Senators preparing to approve Missouri's nearly $28 billion budget are poised to come up short on fully funding the state's K-12 education system.

Just a year ago, a bipartisan group of senators strong-armed GOP leaders to fully fund the formula that allocates state money to school districts for the first time in the state's history. But the budget bill senators are expected to debate Wednesday would shortchange that formula.

“The amount of money that the legislature is considering is just what is adequate," said Mike Lodewegen, associate executive director of government affairs for the Missouri Association of School Administrators. "That’s just what is adequate to get by. It is not allowing us to move forward anymore.”

Last month, House members voted to fully fund the formula, adding $98 million on top of what schools got last year. The Senate Appropriations Committee elected to put just $48 million more toward the school's formula and use $25 million to boost spending on school transportation, which has been underfunded for years. Senators spread the remaining $25 million throughout the budget on other priorities, such as nursing homes.

In all, K-12 schools cost the state about $6.1 billion.

Senators who favor the transportation increase argue that school districts have had to move funds from other parts of their budgets to pay to get kids to school.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Dan Brown, R-Rolla, said transportation was a bigger concern among senators, though lawmakers "always want to fully fund the formula."

Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, said he supported the proposal.

"It's a tough call because I know everybody wants to fully fund the formula, but there’s many school districts across the state, including in my district, that — the way we have cut transportation funding for so many years, it's really put them in a bind."

Last fiscal year, districts were reimbursed for about 16 percent of the $485.8 million they spent on transportation, according to the Missouri Department for Elementary and Secondary Education. Under state law, they can be paid up to 75 percent of those costs.

Lodewegen said that was an issue for schools and his organization appreciated more funds for transportation. He and some lawmakers said, however, that Gov. Eric Greitens could withhold funds from education transportation, leaving K-12 schools without a spending boost at all. The foundation formula funds, however, would be safer.

“I actually can’t think of a year that there wasn’t funding withheld from transportation, and so while we appreciate the money going into that line, we’re concerned about what the governor may do if that money is appropriated.”

He said state spending per student would be flat under the Senate proposal because the money would be consumed by early childhood spending. A 2014 law says the state has to start covering the costs of early childhood education a year after the formula is fully funded.

With the formula spending approved last year, districts can start receiving state aid this summer for up to 4 percent of their enrolled students who receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Greitens withheld $15 million in school transportation spending Missouri legislators had approved for this school year. Last year, more than $21.6 million was withheld.

Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, said senators should fully fund the formula, and he expressed concern that Greitens could withhold the money. He said he would vote no on the bill on the Senate floor unless members fully fund the formula.

"I've heard from some of my districts that transportation has been a trouble spot in their budget," Holsman said.

For some districts, a boost to transportation funding would be better. Center School District in south Kansas City is a "hold harmless" district, meaning its budget is not affected by changes in the formula funding. For Center, a boost to its transportation funds would be a help.

Center is reimbursed only about $250,000 of the $1.6 million it spends on transportation costs, said Kelly Wachel, a district spokeswoman. When the district gets higher reimbursement for transportation, it can spend more on classroom resources.

“When you move the money around in your budget to support things like transportation, you take away some of those direct resources for your classroom," Wachel said.

Some other area districts, including Kansas City Public Schools and Hickman Mills, are also "hold harmless" districts unaffected by boosts to formula spending. Districts including Grandview, North Kansas City, Lee's Summit, LIberty, Blue Springs and Raytown could be affected by either a boost in formula or transportation funds.

Brent Ghan, deputy executive director of the Missouri School Boards Association, said the benefit for districts would vary.

If the Senate passes an education budget different from that approved by the House, negotiators from both chambers would have to work out the differences.