Missouri senators look at potential education savings

Tuesday, January 11, 2011 | 7:09 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — A Missouri senator outlined about $80 million of potential cuts to public schools Tuesday as senators began reviewing around 1,000 e-mails containing cost-saving suggestions from the general public.

The Senate's second annual "Rebooting Government" initiative is intended to identify ways of saving money for a cash-strapped state that is facing a projected budget gap of several hundred million dollars for the upcoming fiscal year. Before considering their own legislation, senators are breaking into small brainstorming groups, reading each e-mailed suggestion in rooms full of state agency officials and lobbyists.

The ideas discussed Tuesday ranged from the complex, such as changes to the state's highly technical school aid formula, to the simple, such as picking up trash less frequently from state institutions.

This past year, only a few of the thousands of online ideas from citizens actually made it into law. Those included a merger of the state Water Patrol with the Missouri State Highway Patrol and the repeal of laws requiring the printing of thousands of copies of the official state manual and statutes. Lawmakers also overhauled the state pension system, saving the state an estimated $660 million over 10 years — a move generally embraced by several citizen recommendations.

Several of this year's online suggestions include changes to the state's method of funding K-12 public schools, which get about $3 billion in basic state aid. Schools are due an increase of $230 million to $255 million next year, but state officials don't expect to be able to provide the full amount called for by the formula.

Sen. Victor Callahan, D-Independence, said the state could reduce the amount due to schools by about $80 million by making several changes to the funding formula. The proposals likely would face resistance from school districts that stand to get less money.

Missouri's formula holds some districts harmless from funding cuts they otherwise would receive under the state formula. Figures provided Tuesday by Senate staff show there are 21 school districts receiving more than double the amount they otherwise would get under the formula because of the so-called "hold harmless" provisions. Capping those districts at twice the amount of the formula calculation would save the state nearly $32 million.

The state could save roughly $30 million by eliminating a provision that allows school districts with declining enrollments to use their attendance figures from two years ago when calculating their state aid, Callahan said. An additional $14 million could be saved by repealing a provision that counts each student who will be enrolled in summer school this year as if he or she were 1.25 pupils under the formula's school attendance provisions.

Another part of Missouri's school funding law specifically protects small school districts. Those with fewer than 350 students are guaranteed the same level of funding they got in either the 2005 or 2006 fiscal years, even if their enrollments drop. Repealing that could save about $6.5 million.

Although about one-third of Missouri's 522 school districts have fewer than 350 students, there have been few mergers in recent years. School district consolidation generally is a local decision in Missouri, though the state can dissolve districts that remain unaccredited or are financially insolvent.

"There is a huge disincentive for (voluntary) consolidation if you continue to pay people for 350 students when they might only have five," Callahan said.

Other suggestions discussed Tuesday by senators included consolidation of executive agencies, election polling places, local prosecuting attorney offices or entire counties. Another citizen suggestion — already embraced by Sen. Jim Lembke — would consolidate legislative districts. Lembke, R-St. Louis, has proposed a constitutional amendment reducing the number of members in the Missouri House of Representatives to 103 instead of the current 163. He estimated it could save $6 million annually. But the measure is unlikely to pass the House.

Tim Gray, a partner at Waste Remedies in St. Louis which is a consultant for the state, estimated Missouri could save $1 million annually by negotiating cheaper trash collection contracts, hauling off trash less frequently and recycling more.

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