Stimulus money saves programs at Columbia Public Schools temporarily

Thursday, February 25, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Columbia Public Schools could use some good financial news.

But as the saying goes, there's good news and bad news.

Stimulus money for Columbia

District spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark provided the following numbers, which break down stimulus money that has been promised to Columbia Public Schools:

  • $2,379,948 — Title I program-used for Title I preschool classroom teachers, supplies and equipment
  • $1,077,050 — Career Ladder funding for 2008-09 school year
  • $4,060,728 — IDEA Special Education funding for one-time expenditures such as equipment for visually and hearing impaired students
  • $199,989 — Competitive Title IID grant for special technology for students at Smithton Middle School
  • $70,826 — Title IID technology funds being used to explore on-line learning for students
  • $7,221,953 —  Stabilization funds the state is using to fund the foundation formula this year
  • Funding for about eight jobs between Title I and Special Education

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The Good News

Despite three consecutive years of budget cuts by the district, things could have been worse: Federal stimulus money for Missouri supported key public school programs, including Title I preschool for children from low-income homes, Career Ladder funding for teacher professional development and special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The federal government promised the district $7.2 million in federal stabilization (a category of stimulus) dollars for the regular school funding formula, Linda Quinley, chief financial officer of Columbia Public Schools, said. She expects the Missouri Department of Secondary and Elementary Education to forward the final check for the current fiscal year in April.

Columbia Superintendent Chris Belcher said the stabilization funds propped up the foundation formula this fiscal year; the formula is used to determine how much state funding Missouri public school districts get. He said the funds may be used for the same purpose again next year, depending on what Gov. Jay Nixon's final budget looks like when legislators approve it in May.

The budget that Belcher referred to may look different from the version recommended by Nixon in January at his State of the State speech. On Monday, the U.S. Senate passed a jobs funding bill that was missing language to appropriate $300 million that was a part of Nixon's state budget recommendations.

Quinley said that besides the federal stabilization funds, the district receives stimulus money from two other sources: IDEA part B, and Title I.

The district obtained $1.5 million through IDEA part B and used $1.4 million of that to purchase and renovate a former day care facility on Bethel Street. The remainder was spent on special education transportation.

No money has been received through Title I yet, but the district received a commitment for $2.4 million, which will be used for the district's early childhood education program, Quinley said.

The Bad News

The stimulus money supporting these programs will run out by 2012, barring further legislation to extend it. What happens then?

When the last stimulus money is spent in 2011, the school district is going to feel it, Quinley said. The district now also expects a permanent reduction in state funding in the future, she said.

On Wednesday, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released a memo saying that the state cannot afford a $43 million mid-year funding payment to the state's school districts.

The payment was a part of the state's support of the foundation formula. The Columbia district will lose about $950,000.

The trend of decreased funding from the state fits with a February 2010 news release from Missouri's Office of Administration saying that current fiscal year net general revenue collections were down 12.5 percent from the same point in the previous fiscal year. Belcher said state funding is about 33 percent of the district's annual budget.

The final piece of the district's funding puzzle is local funding, which is about 55 percent of the budget according to Belcher. Boone County Assessor Tom Schauwecker said that he cannot provide a useful estimate for districts throughout the county until tax rolls close on June 30.

Schauwecker wrote in the Feb. 5 issue of Columbia Business Times that assessed valuation for the county increased by $11.8 million. That figure stands in contrast to the peak increase of $129 million in 2006. Schauwecker said that the average increase prior to 2006 was around $55 to $65 million annually.

Future Directions

Belcher said that at a meeting he attended in Jefferson City last week, state officials discussed ideas for potential future program cuts that might be necessary if the state's financial condition does not improve.

Belcher also said that legislators want to continue full funding of the foundation formula but that they will have to find another $86 million to do so.

Previous cuts by the Columbia School Board may help ease the transition if funding decreases occur. Quinley said the more than $5 million in district budget cuts approved by the School Board in early February were partly in anticipation of the shortfall that would occur when stimulus funds run out.

How will the loss of this money affect the district's commitment to maintain a financial reserve in the amount of 16 percent of total operating expenses?

Quinley said that it would be hard to make a prediction about that when there is uncertainty over funding from the state but that the district's reserve was in good shape at the start of the 2009-10 school year, amounting to about 18 percent of total operating expenses.

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