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‘Defining moment’ for Missouri schools

Making the case that the state’s economy is directly tied to the quality of its public educational system, Gov. Jay Nixon on Tuesday told an assembly of school leaders that Missouri is at a “defining moment” in history.

The governor delivered the keynote address at the annual legislative forum of the Missouri School Boards’ Association.

“Over the past five years, we have weathered some tough challenges and we’ve made some tough choices,” Nixon said. “But we’ve never wavered from the values we share: That public funds should be used for public schools; that our economy can’t thrive if our students aren’t prepared; and that the way to improve public schools is to raise them up, not tear them down.”

Noting that unemployment has dipped to the lowest it’s been since June 2008, Nixon said the economy is improving — which also benefits state coffers. What to do with those new dollars is a “defining moment” for state leaders, he said.

“How do we invest these dollars to pack the biggest punch … to get the most significant impact for the state?” he asked. “Nothing will have a greater impact than the commitment we make right now to public education.

“Good schools mean good jobs. It’s really not that complicated.”

He said his version of next year’s state budget triples funding for the state’s preschool programming, increases funding for bus transportation by $15 million, provides $278 million dollars for K-12 education and fully funds the state’s foundation formula in two years.

“These are solid investments in your districts,” Nixon said.

He exhorted listeners — almost all were public school board members and superintendents — to share how those budget increases impact their schools. “Help us amplify, in a specific way, what these additional resources mean for your districts … localizing these issues is extremely vital,” Nixon said.

The governor noted nine years ago the Legislature and then-governor Matt Blunt passed a new formula to divide funding among the public schools, but because of the ensuing economic crisis state leaders never funded public education to the extent they originally intended.

“With the economy picking up steam, now there are no more excuses. It’s time to put our budgets where our campaign brochures are and get serious about fully funding our schools,” he said.

The line drew applause from the room of education supporters.

Nixon said he’s never met anyone running for office who didn’t vocally support public education.

“We get these defining moments when you can see if they really do,” he said.

Nixon also talked about his willingness to cut taxes, and spoke favorably about a measure advanced by Sen. Will Kraus, R-Lee’s Summit.

“I’m not opposed to making reasonable cuts to the tax code,” Nixon said.

He noted, to be able to support a tax cut, it must “be focused on creating jobs,” must “protect the investment in our classrooms,” and must “help folks who really need it.”

But he said fully funding the foundation formula — which is underfunded by more than $610 million in the current fiscal year — is his priority and he wants it done in two years.

“We need to get that done … it might seem like an eternity to some, but it does not to me,” he said.

He said if legislators send him tax cuts that defy his “parameters,” they can count on his veto.

“If they don’t stay within these parameters, I will be coming to a neighborhood near you again,” he said, drawing a chuckle from the crowd, many of whom where instrumental late last summer in persuading state lawmakers to uphold Nixon’s veto of a broad tax cut measure.

Doug Whitehead, a Jefferson City Board of Education member who also serves as the MSBA president-elect, said he’s not nervous that the General Assembly might pass another massive tax cut with the potential to erode public education resources.

“It’s so early,” Whitehead noted, adding that if grassroots support is needed, his colleagues will be ready. “I feel good about our team with MSBA.”

Instead Whitehead said he left Tuesday’ meeting with a plan to share Nixon’s message of support for public schools.

“He challenged us to amplify what those additional resources mean to us,” Whitehead said. “It’s our responsibility to show the community that we are creating excellence every day.”

Brent Ghan, MSBA spokesman, said his organization is comfortable with the governor’s plan to cut taxes.

“We’re comfortable with the compromise that’s been worked out … we think it’s a reasonable compromise that protects the goal of fully funding the foundation formula.”

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