COLUMBIA — Gov. Jay Nixon’s intention to budget “record funding” for K-12 Missouri schools starting in the 2013 fiscal year is “a misnomer,” according to Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Chris Belcher.
In Tuesday night’s State of the State address, the governor touted a $5 million increase in funding for the foundation formula, Missouri’s primary method of dispersing state funds to schools. However, Belcher said that the proposed increase is not enough for growing districts such as Columbia’s. The proposed funding increase will not make up for the formula’s $300 million deficit, Belcher said.
“It’s more a political statement than it is a financial one,” he said.
Nixon, a Democrat, emphasized the importance of improving Missouri’s public schools and avoiding budget cuts to elementary and secondary education.
“For the past three years, even in challenging budget times, we maintained level funding for K-12 classrooms,” Nixon said in his speech. “The budget I present tonight provides record funding for our K-12 classrooms because that’s the right thing to do.”
Nixon’s newly released budget proposal includes a $3,009,388,410 allocation for the formula, up from last year’s $3,004,388,410.
Proposed increases for the foundation formula came as a pleasant surprise to Missouri school districts, Missouri School Boards’ Association spokesman Brent Ghan said. Although the $5 million bump for K-12 education funding from the 2012 fiscal year is a drop in the bucket, the implications of the increase are weightier.
“Given the budget hole that the state is facing right now, even a slight increase in funding for K-12 education is very good news for public schools of Missouri, especially in light of the fact that other state services and programs are facing cuts,” he said. “It indicates the governor is placing a high priority on K-12 education.”
Although any increase in school funding is a positive turn, the reality is that as the district continues to grow, level funding forces the district to spend less and less money per student per year, Belcher said.
“We grew 170 students this year, we’ll grow another 170 next year, and every time we grow, we’re getting less money per student,” he said. “It’s not really level funding for us.”
Belcher said he has cut 260 jobs from the district in the past four years, saving the district $20 million. These trims, however, hurt the students the district is supposed to serve, he said.
“We have larger class sizes, less administrators, less secretaries,” he said. “It’s harming the service we can deliver.”
Board of Education President Tom Rose said it is comforting that, as the budget stands now, the district will not have to decrease spending further in the next year. He said the district needs to continue to supply students with services outside the classroom, such as counseling, English as a Second Language classes and programs for students who have disabilities.
“It’s almost to the point where there’s not a lot of room to make further reductions,” Rose said.
On top of that, an inability to pay teachers a high enough salary has cost the district some good hires, Rose said. Potential teachers and administrators have turned down jobs with Columbia Public Schools because the district could not pay enough. Rose said this calls the quality of students’ education into question.
The district has saved significantly over the past three years in order to halt a trend of budget slashing. This year, Belcher said, no further jobs and services will be cut from Columbia Public Schools.
However, years of foundation formula underfunding continue to take their toll, Belcher said.
“We’re still underfunded, Columbia’s still losing ground, and the legislature is not willing to talk about it,” he said.
“It has been a brutal four years.”
In past years, foundation formula funding made up 35 percent to 36 percent of Columbia Public Schools’ budget. This year, that number was down to 32 percent. Belcher said it might dip to 30 percent next year.
The formula attempts to create equity in education from district to district in Missouri by filling in the gaps when local tax revenue falls short. A district with higher property values will receive less formula funds than one with lower property values.
The consistent underfunding of the formula “creates winners and losers” as districts grow, Belcher said.
“Because it’s underfunded, the equity it is meant to create is not working,” he said. “We are getting more and more disparity between schools.”
Belcher said money spent per student per year ranges from $7,000 to $16,000 across Missouri’s 532 public school districts.
Columbia Public Schools spends about $9,000 on each student’s education per year, Belcher said.
Public school busing was marked as a priority in Nixon's proposed 2013 fiscal year budget. Ghan said state funding for school transportation must be maintained so districts are not forced to reduce routes.
“We thought there might be cuts to (transportation funding),” Ghan said. “Even districts that don’t depend on the formula depend on transportation funding from the state.”
Although Columbia Public Schools has opted to continue all bus routes despite declining state transportation funding, the district has been forced to eat the costs, Belcher said.
While the state used to supply Columbia Public Schools with 70 percent of its transportation funding, that has since declined to last year’s 30 percent, he said.
Despite uncertainties about the future of K-12 funding, Ghan said he is optimistic about the proposed budget increase. The Missouri School Boards’ Association will work with the state legislature to maintain the funding spike as the budget is approved.
“It’s just very good news for school districts across our state,” Ghan said.
Belcher said school districts must wait until the legislature approves the state budget before they fully understand what lies ahead financially.
“Nixon has recommended level funding — that does not mean it is going to happen,” Belcher said. “We can’t stay level unless (the state government) finds something else to cut.”