Underfunded state formula costs schools millions

At Jefferson City, district could spend $743 more per student

Students change classes between Nichols Career Center and Jefferson City High School.

Students change classes between Nichols Career Center and Jefferson City High School. Photo by News Tribune.

If Missouri state lawmakers had fully funded the state’s foundation formula this fiscal year, the Jefferson City Public Schools would have been able to spend $743 more per student.

Multiplied by the more than 8,600 students who attend the city’s public schools, that’s about $6.4 million which could have been spent to pay teachers, transport students and buy supplies.

Jefferson City isn’t alone.

On a per-student basis, the shortfall is approximately $700 on average. Nearly two out of every three of Missouri’s school districts are underfunded by $800 or more. More than 70 districts are underfunded by more than $900 per student, according to the Missouri Budget Project, a non-partisan think tank that analyzed the data.

Rural districts have been hit harder than urban ones.

At the Cole County R-1 School District in Russellville, the per student shortfall is $832. In Eugene, the shortfall is $821. And at Blair Oaks, the shortfall is $881.

Missouri uses a mathematical formula to decide how much each school district gets. It’s Missouri’s primary method of distributing money to the public schools. Although districts also get funding from local and federal sources, the formula is the major source of basic state support for public schools.

Russellville Superintendent Gerry Hobbs said he supports Gov. Jay Nixon’s proposal to fully fund the formula by fiscal year 2016 by adding $278 million.

“When the economy has not been good, we understand there’s only so much money to go around,” Hobbs said. “But now we’re seeing surpluses of $400 (million) to $500 million, and we support the governor’s request. Educating kids should be our highest priority.”

Russellville is missing about $502,319 this school year as a result of these state budget shortfalls, and that’s only one year.

In 2005, state lawmakers drafted a new formula, but a recession in 2008 derailed their plans and shortfalls have been occurring regularly since fiscal year 2009.

Back in 2005, former Senate Chuck Graham was precient about the impending shortfalls. “He’s (Gov. Matt Blunt) got no way to pay for it,” Graham predicted at the end of the legislative session. He compared the lack of a funding plan to a 1992 unfulfilled state promise to build more roads.

“If the voters liked the 15-year highway plan — which had more money in it than this does — they’re going to love Gov. Blunt’s seven-year education plan,” Graham said, “which has no money in it.”

Many school leaders view that new formula as a promise that hasn’t been kept.

Hobbs said, if the money had materialized, he likely would have used $49,000 on technology upgrades that would have expanded students’ Internet access.

“We would like to have some iPad and Chromebook carts to be able to transition technology into the classroom,” he explained.

In the past few years, the Russellville district has reduced its staff by 10 people and eliminated three bus routes. Although the cuts are due in part to a loss of students, it’s also a response to cuts in state funding.

On top of losses in foundation formula funding, Hobbs said districts like his have also seen state funding for bus transportation dwindle.

“We haven’t been able to buy a bus since 2010,” he said. “All the money we have is for repairs.”

Hobbs also lamented cuts to MORENet — the network provides Internet service and email accounts for his district — have meant the district now pays $38,000 for a service that used to cost $25,000.

“They cut out all these other services, and our money is stretched even thinner,” Hobbs said.

Hobbs said he’s optimistic this year legislators will halt their habit of underfunding education. A House Republican budget plan provides a base increase of $122 million, but schools wouldn’t receive the remaining $156 million requested by the governor until the end of the fiscal year.

“I’ve been talking to lawmakers … they want to fund education. I think if we stay positive and stay on the same page, we’re in a good position,” Hobbs said.

Currently Missouri school districts receive more than $3 billion from the formula. Chief Financial Officer Jason Hoffman said he feels fortunate that at least Missouri’s public schools have seen their funding at least stay flat.

Hoffman said, if Jefferson City received $6 million more this year, it likely would be spent on boosting security in the schools, investing in technology and solving transportation problems.

He noted that the wifi system at Simonsen 9th Grade Center is state of the art, but the electrical system doesn’t have enough capacity to charge a device for every student. And the district doesn’t provide transportation for students in grades 9-12 if they live closer than 3.5 miles to their building.

Hoffman noted state lawmakers established their own targets for what it cost to educate a child. Currently the “state adequacy target” is $6,131. The number was devised by looking at what high-performing districts spend to educate their children.

“I think it’s interesting that the state has defined what should be contributed for an ‘adequate,’ not an ‘outstanding’ education,” he said. “To me, ‘adequate’ is quality that’s acceptable, but not better than acceptable. And they are not even funding that.”

At Blair Oaks, Superintendent Jim Jones said he would have used the $1,014,068 to follow through on a host of projects, including possibly expanding the pre-kindergarten program to full time; adding teaching staff and improving salaries; and building a second classroom for the district’s ITV program.

“You’ve got to live within your means,” Jones said. “But we’re encouraged by the conversation about fulling funding the foundation formula.”

In Southern Boone County, the shortfall is $888, or almost $1.3 million.

Superintendent Chris Felmlee said he’d likely spend that money on technology, programming, staff and facilities.

“We’ve got all kinds of issues with out facilities,” he said, noting the high school’s weight room is so small it poses a danger to students. “We’re doing as much as we can with what we have.”

Amy Blouin, executive director for the Missouri Budget Project, said the shortfalls are more pronounced in rural areas.

“Obviously these are not just numbers to us,” Blouin said. “The foundation formula was developed to ensure that each school district had adequate funding funding to meet educational standards in the state … in failing to invest in quality education, we are truly failing our children. We’re undermining our state’s economic development and our future.”

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