JEFFERSON CITY — After several weeks of debate, the Senate cast a final vote consolidating Missouri's two education departments into one all-inclusive department.
The move would eliminate the Higher Education Department and combine it with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, creating a single entity under the authority of a six-member education board.
Last week, the Senate voted to pass a joint resolution to dissolve the higher education board and combine the departments. A second joint resolution, which details the number of board members and the power given to the new board, created some contentious debate among senators.
Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, the bill's sponsor, said the two resolutions rely upon each other, and passing one without the other would complicate the consolidation.
The Senate voted 30-2 to pass the second joint resolution, with Sens. Frank Barnitz, D-Spring Lake, and Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, voting against the joint resolution.
Barnitz said he voted against the bill because he thinks it does not adequately explain the powers of what he called the "superboard."
"We are moving too quickly," Barnitz said. "I haven't had time to understand all the powers that we're going to be giving the superboard. How do I go out then and talk to my constituents about the action of the joint resolutions?"
The joint resolution says that the new education board would function "with all powers and duties as may be prescribed by law."
Barnitz said it doesn't make sense to have the Missouri people vote for the resolution until after those laws have been established.
Barnitz's district includes Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla and Linn State Technical College.
He said administrators at higher education institutions in his district support Shields' merger plan, but students attending those higher education institutions have shown opposition to the creation of one overarching board.
Without any statutory provisions detailing the authority of the board, Barnitz said his student constituents have expressed concern that the board might attempt to intervene in the regional board authority and possibly strip program funding and consolidate institutions.
Shields, R-St. Joseph, said the main priority of his joint resolution is to create a seamless connection between public schools and higher education institutions and that the state could save anywhere between $1 and $3 million from services and administrative positions.
"I think you can create a better system of education in the state," Shields said. "If you can get the higher education people working with the K-12 people, I think we can do better, and in the end, we'll end up with a more educated citizenry in Missouri."
Both joint resolutions will head to the House for further debate. Because the merger requires changing language in the Missouri Constitution, voters would get the final say when they vote on the consolidation in the November election.
With fewer than three weeks left in the session, getting the measures on the ballot will require quick action by the House.