Government & Politics

Missouri senators back budget that falls $50 million short of fully funding schools

Missouri senators endorsed a budget plan Wednesday that falls short of fully funding the state's formula that allocates money to K-12 schools.
Missouri senators endorsed a budget plan Wednesday that falls short of fully funding the state's formula that allocates money to K-12 schools.

Missouri senators came up short on education funding on Wednesday, just a year after they strong-armed GOP leaders to fully fund the formula that allocates state money to K-12 schools for the first time in state history.

Senators worked through a series of budget bills that comprise the state's near $28 billion budget. Despite the efforts of some senators to force a vote on fully funding K-12 education, spending on schools fell $50 million of what's necessary for full funding.

"It's unfortunate that given our budget situation that we have to be pitted against higher education funding and nursing home funding and state employee pay and state employee health insurance. We just don't have a lot of money right now in the state," said Mike Lodewegen, associate executive director of government affairs for the Missouri Association of School Administrators.

Last month, House members voted to fully fund the formula, adding $98 million on top of what schools got last year. Senators, however, gave schools just $48 million more toward the formula and put $25 million in schools' transportation budgets, which have been underfunded for years. They used the remaining funds on other education budget lines and spending priorities, like nursing homes.

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

The budget bill allocating funds for elementary and secondary education passed 25-8 with opposition from senators who wanted to see the formula fully funded. Sen. Jill Schupp, D-St. Louis County, offered a series of amendments aimed at adding the extra $50 million in education funds, but over nearly two hours of debate, she withdrew her amendments over opposition she received on the Senate floor.

"Education is what brought me to the table," Schupp said. "That's why I'm sitting in this chamber — because I care about public education, and I want to make sure all of our kids, regardless of where they live in the state, have access to a quality, resourced education."

Schupp and several fellow senators favored full funding of the formula, but Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Dan Brown, R-Rolla, argued in favor of transportation funding. Brown said that was a bigger concern for many senators and school districts, though lawmakers "always want to fully fund the formula."

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.

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 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.

Kansas City Public Schools spokesman Ray Weikal said the district had seen its homeless enrollment grow from 1,315 in 2012 to 1,776 in 2016 while its transportation reimbursements fell from $98.7 million to $83.6 million.

Lodewegen said transportation 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," Lodewegen said.

Lawmakers who favored full funding were also concerned Greitens could withhold funds from transportation budget, arguing putting the money in the state formula would make it safer. 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.

Brown said Greitens could withhold funds from the formula, too, making it no safer than transportation funds.

The $48 million in extra funding approved by the Senate would be consumed by early childhood program costs, Lodewegen argued, leaving state spending per student flat. Missouri had to begin covering the cost of early childhood programs under a 2014 law that says the state has to start covering the cost of those programs 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.

Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, said the transportation funds would benefit hold harmless school districts in his Senate district, but fully funding the formula was important to provide state resources for early childhood education programs, "one of the most important priorities that we as a state can fund." He said he supported fully funding the formula and voted against the bill.

"But I wanted to point out that if you don't support the amendment, it doesn't mean you don't care for education. It just means that you chose another priority within that education sphere that I think should be respected," Holsman said.

House and Senate negotiators will hash out differences between their versions of the budget bills before they go to Greitens' desk.