ANALYSIS: Missouri schools lobby online for money from stimulus plan

Sunday, March 1, 2009 | 3:53 p.m. CST; updated 9:13 a.m. CST, Monday, March 2, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — School officials across Missouri are using Gov. Jay Nixon's online suggestion box to take a second try at getting federal stimulus dollars for construction projects.

Nixon launched a Web site one week ago to solicit ideas on how Missouri should spend the billions of dollars it is due to receive from the $787 billion federal package.

It took less than 72 hours for the governor's office to receive more than 1,000 responses, ranging from the serious to the silly. It's no coincidence that dozens of school superintendents were among the first to click "submit."

When then-President-elect Barack Obama outlined his plan for an economic stimulus package last year, school construction was listed with such infrastructure projects as road repairs and expanded high-speed Internet service as targets for the money.

To help make a case to federal officials, the American Association of School Administrators solicited proposals for ready-to-go projects from schools across the nation. Missouri's schools were at the head of the class.

Of the 796 proposals from superintendents nationwide, 244 came from Missouri — a little less than one-third of the total and far more than from any other state. Missouri school officials proposed new construction totaling $628 million and renovations costing $353 million.

At one point, it looked like their efforts might pay off. The House passed a bill containing $13.3 billion for school construction projects, including an estimated $228 million share for Missouri. But the Senate took the money out, and it wasn't included in the version ultimately signed by Obama.

Although no money is earmarked for school construction, education officials are hopeful that part of Missouri's $1.3 billion in education stimulus money might still be routed to such things as school roofs and windows.

Nixon launched his online suggestion site on a Monday morning. Within hours, the executive director of the Missouri Association of School Administrators sent an e-mail to superintendents providing a link to Nixon's site along with an overview of the stimulus package. School superintendents took quick action.

The deputy superintendent in Rolla submitted an online proposal for more than $4 million to add new science classrooms and laboratories at the high school. The superintendent for the Tina-Avalon School District in Carroll County proposed $1.5 million to replace its 54-year-old doors and windows with more energy efficient models and to install a security system recommended by the sheriff's office.

From Archie to Weableau and districts alphabetically in between, superintendents sought improved gymnasiums, new heating and air conditioning systems, paved parking lots, preschool facilities and performing arts centers.

For good measure, Crocker Superintendent Jim Bogle submitted two proposals within 20 minutes of each other — one for a 5,000 square foot Vocational Agricultural Building with an attached 1,000 square foot greenhouse; the other for a new school cafeteria that would double as a community tornado shelter capable of protecting about 1,100 people.

School officials aren't the only ones using Nixon's Web site to lobby for money.

To emphasis its online request, American Energy Producers Inc. announced through a press release Friday that it had submitted a proposal seeking money to complete construction of its soybean crushing and biodiesel plant in Carrollton. The $164 million facility could create 46 jobs and eventually generate $69 million in revenues to the state, according to the company.

One of the bigger grassroots lobbying efforts on Nixon's Web site comes from supporters of the Metro bus and light-rail system in the St. Louis area. On March 30, the financially strapped mass-transit system plans to eliminate about 2,300 of its 9,000 bus stops, cut back on the frequency of its trains and lay off almost one-quarter of its staff.

Metro expects to get some federal stimulus money for repairs, but not for its operations, said spokeswoman Dianne Williams. State lawmakers historically have been reluctant to bail out Metro.

Nixon spokeswoman Scott Holste says state employees have begun combing through the suggestions. A large number of people speaking in favor of a project could help demonstrate support for it, Holste said.

But "we are going to focus on the quality of proposals, not the quantity that may come in on a specific proposal," Holste added.

Even good ideas may run into trouble if the still-being-developed federal regulations restrict money from going toward particular projects. And even if Nixon likes an idea, spending decisions ultimately must be made by legislators who craft the state budget.

It's unclear, for example, whether legislators will be able to route any stimulus money to school construction. Legislators never specifically have budgeted money for that before, said associate education commissioner Gerri Ogle.

But that hasn't stopped schools officials from asking for it now.

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