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Missouri school funding gap hits some more than others

Wednesday, March 19, 2014 | 11:39 a.m. CDT; updated 2:16 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, March 19, 2014

JEFFERSON CITY — Some Missouri school districts are getting hit harder financially than others as a result of a state funding shortfall that has climbed to well over $600 million, according to a report released Wednesday.

An analysis by the nonprofit Missouri Budget Project found that the nearly $3.1 billion in basic state aid being provided this year to public school districts is about $656 million short of what's called for under a 2005 law that re-wrote Missouri's school funding formula.

The shortfall amounts to about $700 per student on a statewide basis, the report said. But those figures vary widely by district, with several rural Missouri school systems getting shortchanged by more than $970 per student and several suburban St. Louis districts receiving less than $40 per student below their targeted amounts.

"By underfunding and failing to invest in quality education, we are truly failing our children," said Amy Blouin, executive director of the Missouri Budget Project, a St. Louis-based group that analyzes fiscal issues with an emphasis on how they affect low-income residents. "We're undermining our state's economic development and our future."

Missouri's school funding law sets a per-student spending target that is intended to ensure each district has adequate funding based on a combination of state and local revenues. But state funding has fallen below the called-for amounts each year since 2010, when state revenues dropped as a result of a recession. The funding gap has grown to the point that schools now are receiving about 17 percent less than they are supposed to get under state law.

The report by the Missouri Budget Project concludes that "the vast majority of school districts throughout Missouri have been significantly hurt by Missouri's inability to fully fund the state's education funding formula."

Some school districts have eliminated special reading teachers, classroom aides and counselors, increased class sizes and reduced the number of courses offered, said Roger Kurtz, executive director of the Missouri Association of School Administrators.

Of the state's 520 school districts, the funding shortfall equals at least $800 per student in 304 of those school systems and at least $900 per student in 72 districts, according to the report.

The largest gap of $978 per student is at the Potosi School District in Washington County in rural eastern Missouri. Of the 10 districts with the largest per-pupil funding shortfalls, three are in Washington County and five are in rural Pulaski County in south-central Missouri.

The report said the shortfalls tend to be worse in rural schools, which often rely more heavily on state funding because lower property values make it harder to raise revenues through local property taxes.

Of the 10 schools with the smallest per-pupil funding shortfall, seven are in St. Louis County, where local property taxes provide a greater amount of money. The Clayton district had the smallest state funding gap of $34 per student.

Because of quirks in the funding formula, the statewide funding shortfall is projected to shrink to $556 million next year. A budget plan pending in the Missouri House would provide schools at least a $122 million funding increase in the 2014-2015 school year, with the potential for a $278 million increase if revenues meet Gov. Jay Nixon's more optimistic projections.

Kurtz said that two-tiered approach would "create some difficult budgeting issues for school districts," because they likely would not know until the end of the school year whether they would get the additional money.


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