Supporters of a bill seeking to allow Missouri school districts to divide into sub-districts say it could provide more representation on the school board. But critics say the legislation could cause unintended consequences.
House Bill 164, sponsored by Rep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, has been combined with a similar bill, House Bill 253, sponsored by Craig Fishel, R-Springfield. House Bill 253 has been referred to the Senate Education Committee, according to the House website.
If this bill is passed, school boards could vote to subdivide, or a number equivalent to 10 percent of the voters who voted in the previous school board election could petition to the school board to request the sub-district issue be placed on the ballot.
If a school board does choose to subdivide, some board members would represent specific areas of the district, while some could serve at large.
The sub-districts should be neighboring, close-packed and as equal in population as possible, according to the bill.
School districts would be able to choose how many sub-districts to divide into, how many board members would represent each sub-district and how many — if any — would serve at large.
There would be a process to elect sub-district board members who would be required to live in the sub-district they represent.
"When people live in a given area, they will know their personal needs and the needs of that area probably better than someone who lives at the other end of the district," Veit said.
The main goal is to ensure schools boards are more representative of their entire district.
"If you look at most districts that don't have that, most of the school board members come out of a given area, and the rest of the school district isn't necessarily represented," Veit said.
While sub-districts could be beneficial for large school districts, it would be unnecessary for small districts, Veit said.
"My position here is I want to give the local school boards the opportunity," Veit said. "They know better than I do what they need to do."
The Standing Committee on Elementary and Secondary Education voted unanimously Feb. 23 to approve House Bill 164.
Witnesses of local interest at the hearing included Jefferson City Board of Education member Brad Bates, former Jefferson City Mayor John Landwehr, Prenger Center Juvenile Court Administrator Michael Couty and former Jefferson City Board of Education member Pam Murray.
Bates, Landwher and Couty testified in support of the bill.
Supporters say this would give districts "local control over the board makeup mechanism," according to a summary of the public testimony from the committee hearing on the House website.
"Currently, many districts in the state are comprised of several members of one community and lack input from a large swath of the district. This bill will give districts the opportunity to be more representative and potentially allow large geographic districts or non- homogeneous districts to diversify," the summary states.
Those in opposition said dividing into subdivisions is unnecessary and could create unintended consequences such as causing candidates to miss the broad picture of the district, and having all at-large seats on the board is adequate, according to written testimonies.
Bates said it seems like a "common- sense measure" to ensure everyone has a voice.
"Our country was founded on the principles of having a representative government so people have a voice," he said. "If there is an option that allows us to get more information, which in turn, makes us stronger as a board and a district, we should support it, right?"
Landwehr testified it would be beneficial for the Jefferson City School District because it is one of the most diverse school districts in the state and most of the school board members tend to be from the same areas.
If the pending legislation becomes a law, the JC Schools administration will "determine whether it is something that should be considered" for the district, Superintendent Larry Linthacum said.
"The Jefferson City School District strives to ensure we are creating a positive learning environment for every student in every building to be successful," he said. "We hope that our board of education reflects that same principle as we believe we are stronger together."
Jefferson City Board of Education President Ken Enloe said he is in favor of school boards having the option to subdivide because it might be helpful in some districts "to achieve a broader representation."
However, he doesn't believe it's necessary in the Jefferson City School District.
"As a member of the Jefferson City School District board, I — and I believe all directors — take very seriously the responsibility to represent all of our students and families," Enloe said. "My concern with subdivisions would be a predisposition to make decisions through the lens of a select group of students."
Murray, who was a school board member from 2015-18, testified for informational purposes. In her witness appearance form, she wrote she is in favor of changing current regulations.
"My experience has been that the boards lack geographic diversity as well as diversity of experiences," Murray wrote. "There needs to be a better way to assure all areas of a district truly have a voice on the board."
However, she said the bill — while well-intentioned — is flawed.
"The bill does not outline how a district could convert to sub-districts absent removing the entire board and electing an entire new board," Murray wrote. "I respectfully request an alternative method of electing boards be established."
Cole R-1 (Russellville) School District Superintendent Perry Gorrell has some initial concerns with the bill.
"We know that when redistricting occurs for whatever office, it becomes a political debate," he said. "No matter how you divide, individuals would be possibly put into districts that they may not believe are a representation of themselves or gives an advantage to another individual."
Cole R-1 is a small district, so there would be no need to divide into subdivisions, Gorrell said.
"Our school districts are not huge populations of people, and to put them into even smaller sub-districts may lead to areas with no representation because no one wants to file," he said.
Cole R-5 (Eugene) Superintendent Dawna Burrow said she hasn't given much thought to the bill because it doesn't "have a lot of bearing for the rural districts."
"Larger city schools are really where this bill may be useful," she said.
The Missouri National Education Association does not have a stance on the bill, MNEA President Phil Murray said.
"We've always been in favor of local control, so the community should be allowed to make the decision on what they want to do for their school boards," he said.
The Missouri State Teachers Association also does not have a stance on the bill but favors local control, said Matt Michelson, MSTA government relations manager.
"The only real resolution that our members have adopted that would speak to this is just the local control of public schools, to make sure that's maintained," he said.