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Educators, legislators discuss challenges for education

Dozens of public school board members and administrators from around Missouri traveled to Jefferson City on Tuesday to learn more about the challenges facing public education and discuss possible solutions with state lawmakers.

The 2013 legislative forum for the Missouri School Boards’ Association was a “tremendous opportunity to learn about issues facing Missouri schools,” Gerry Lee, MSBA president, said in his welcoming remarks.

During the day-long event, board members listened to remarks from House and Senate education leaders and heard a presentation from Steve Yoakum, executive director of the Public School Retirement System. The Missouri Commissioner of Education, Chris Nicastro, also delivered remarks over lunch.

Later in the afternoon, board members converged on the Capitol to chat up lawmakers about school policy choices.

As chairman of the House’s Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, Rep. Steve Cookson, R-Poplar Bluff, told listeners: “Although our committee doesn’t deal with financial issues, we understand there is no money. So we’re going to have to be creative and find ways” to improve circumstances for students.

Doug Whitehead, who serves on the Jefferson City Board of Education, asked what lawmakers think about the proposed “parent trigger” bill, which would give parents whose children attend failing schools the right to take over a building.

Cookson replied: “It’s not been referred to my committee, so the particulars are not familiar to me. But we would have to be very, very careful about how we implement reform along those lines. There are other ways we can hope to improve education.”

Another attendee asked lawmakers if they would consider allowing voters to raise the cap on schools’ bonding capacity, so districts could borrow more for capital improvements. Cookson said he wouldn’t be in favor of raising taxes at the state level, but he would be in favor of allowing local districts to do so.

Members also heard analysis of the state’s fiscal situation and the possibility the state may soon fully fund the school foundation formula, which divvies up the money the state makes available for public education among Missouri’s 521 school districts.

The forecast doesn’t look vibrant, Jim Moody, a lobbyist who specializes in tax policy, told listeners.

He said the state’s economic situation is improving, but economic problems still exist. “We have less money today than we had six year ago,” he said.

Moody argued taxes have been cut significantly — lawmakers have permitted nearly a billion dollars in tax reductions in the last 15 years — but doing so hasn’t translated into job growth yet. Moody said he has cautioned lawmakers again further cuts.

“The paradox is, all of these cuts were imposed without a vote of the people, but they can only be reinstated with a vote of the people,” he said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the MSBA lobbying team also talked about legislation moving through both chambers this session.

Some of the bills they discussed would: give every school building a grade of A through F; alter the state teacher retirement system; create a gun safety program for kids; and provide more funding for preschool education.

Over lunch, Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, congratulated board members on the hard work they do every day. He said he was surprised, when he first entered the General Assembly, to experience the animosity some of his peers have against public education. He suggested school leaders should find ways to invite lawmakers into their schools and educate them about the programs they offer.

“Don’t assume a legislator knows about your program. Mostly they don’t,” Pearce said.

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