By CHRIS BLANK
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Tight budgets have Missouri lawmakers examining changes to the state school funding formula used to steer basic aid from the state Capitol to classrooms.
There has not been enough money in recent years to fully fund the current education formula, prompting concern from some about money distribution problems that could allow certain districts to benefit at the expense of others.
Part of the issue is that Missouri's formula does not account for state funding falling below what is demanded by the formula. Education officials estimate it would take an additional $178 million to meet the current target. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said that by the 2014 budget and after some recalculations within the formula, Missouri could need to add more than $700 million on top of what currently is spent.
Now Missouri lawmakers are considering changes, including a method for pro-rating state payments to school districts when the formula is not fully funded. Previous attempts to tinker with the funding formula have stalled, but leaders in the Senate and House say addressing school funding will be a priority in the legislative session starting Wednesday.
Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, said formula changes would allow lawmakers to decide what to do when funding falls short. He wants senators to pass legislation before their annual spring midterm break. House Majority Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said that "because of the economic situation we've been in, the formula is - in laymen's terms - out of whack and needs to be adjusted."
In 2005, Missouri changed its school funding formula so that it was linked less to local property values and taxes and more to a per-pupil spending target. The revised formula has been implemented in phases and is scheduled to take full effect next school year. In addition, that formula specifies districts will not have their state funding cut even if the new formula calls for it. Those schools are called "hold harmless" districts, and roughly 158 of Missouri's more than 500 school districts are in that category.
Legislation proposed in the House and Senate would set up a pro-rating system when education funding falls short that would call for all schools to share in the cut. However, the "hold harmless" school districts would take a smaller portion of the budget cut.
"What we're trying to do is equalize the pain somewhat," said Rep. Mike Thomson, who has proposed one measure. "A wise person once told me that if you can get it to the point where everyone squirms a little, then you're probably about right."
One critic says that method amounts to a "Band-Aid" while changing the rules in the middle of the game. Sen. Eric Schmitt, who represents a suburban St. Louis legislative district, said "hold harmless" school districts would face budget cuts even though they have not benefited from the additional state money that flowed through the state's new school funding formula.
"You need a comprehensive review of the entire formula," said Schmitt, R-Glendale. "It's not equitable to go after those particular districts."
At least one education organization, the Missouri School Boards' Association, said adjustments to the funding formula seem necessary though it has not thrown support behind a particular proposal. The group says a significant revamping or rewriting of the school funding formula ultimately might be needed as a long-term solution.
"We do think some sort of temporary fix is needed or we will continue to shift money among school districts in a way not envisioned by the formula," said Brent Ghan, a spokesman for the school boards' association.
Sen. David Pearce said it's the under-funding of the current formula that has driven discussion about possible changes.
"I think if we can take out the wild fluctuations in funding from the state, everyone is better off," said Pearce, R-Warrensburg.
Besides the funding formula, Missouri lawmakers also could confront other thorny education issues, such as how to handle unaccredited school districts.
Current law allows students living within the boundaries of unaccredited districts to transfer. The state Supreme Court in 2010 ruled students must be allowed free transfers and that accredited school districts must accept the students, and returned a case concerning that issue back to a trial court.
The legal action has helped trigger a debate among some who think all students deserve a quality education and should be allowed to transfer and those who fear uncontrolled transfers could overwhelm accredited schools.
The St. Louis and Riverview Gardens districts have been unaccredited since 2007. The Kansas City School District will be unaccredited starting Jan. 1 after the State Board of Education revoked that districts' accreditation this fall.
Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro also has encouraged the state Legislature to remove a two-year waiting period before state education officials can take over a school district that loses accreditation. Under the current waiting period, the soonest the state could take over Kansas City schools would be June 30, 2014.