Schools due $255 million boost, but unlikely to get it

Missouri schools are due a nearly $255 million state funding increase next year. But they’re unlikely to get it.

Budget documents reviewed Tuesday by The Associated Press show public schools would need about an 8 percent funding increase to provide the full amount called for by a state law that distributes basic aid to Missouri’s schools.

But Gov. Jay Nixon’s budget director said the governor will not recommend full school funding when he submits a budget to state legislators Jan. 19. Groups representing school administrators and teachers said they simply hope not to receive any less money than they are now.

“We’re telling our members that the most likely scenario right now is for flat funding for the formula,“ said Brent Ghan, a spokesman for the Missouri School Boards’ Association, ”and then to be prepared for some cuts — or even possible elimination — of state support for transportation“ by schools. Busing aid already has been cut in half by Nixon for the current school year.

Nixon’s administration estimates Missouri faces a $500 million budget gap for the 2012 fiscal year, which starts July 1. Consequently, it instructed state agencies to assume programs cut in the current budget — such as school busing aid — will not be replenished next year. Few state programs are expected to receive funding increases.

Missouri’s public schools are budgeted to get $3 billion in basic state aid during the current school year. About $247 million of that is federal economic stimulus money, which the state will have to replace just to keep funding flat for the next school year.

In its funding request to Nixon’s budget office, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education sought state money to fill the hole left by the federal stimulus money, plus a $255 million increase to fully fund the school aid formula.

“Funding the formula remains our first priority,” Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said in a letter to Nixon accompanying the budget request.

Since that request was calculated last fall, more recent figures show the amount needed to fulfill the school funding formula might be closer to a $230 million increase, Ron Lankford, the department’s deputy commissioner for finance and administrative services, said Tuesday. But that doesn’t make it any more likely to occur.

“Realistically we knew at the time we put that in, that that was not going to be funded,” Lankford said. “But we put that in because that’s what the law called for.”

Missouri revised its school funding law in 2005 as it was facing a legal challenge from school districts contending it was not providing enough money and was distributing it unfairly. The new school law was upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court. But the state was unable to fully fund it during the 2009-10 school year or during the 2010-11 academic year.

The funding scenarios for the 2011-12 school year submitted to Nixon’s budget office do not account for an additional $189 million of federal money Missouri expects to receive this year. Lankford said that money must be distributed to schools before the June 30 end of the state fiscal year.

It’s up to the governor and lawmakers to decide exactly how that money would be passed out. One option would be to increase the money flowing through the state funding formula this year, with the understanding the schools would hold onto to the money to help cover the state’s funding gap during the next school year.

Under that scenario, “we’re going to give with one hand and take away with another,” said Otto Fajen, a lobbyist with the Missouri National Education Association.

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