More funding secured for Columbia public preschool — but not space

Wednesday, July 16, 2014 | 5:33 p.m. CDT; updated 7:01 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2014

COLUMBIA — A new law meant to improve early learning in Missouri might not fully benefit the Columbia Public School District anytime soon.

Last week, Gov. Jay Nixon signed House Bill 1689, which increases funding for early childhood education by requiring districts to include students ages 3 to 5 who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches in their calculation of the school foundation formula. The more they can count, the more money districts get.

But the Columbia district has very little room to take more preschool students.

There are about 625 students in 27 classrooms in the district's preschool program — an average of roughly 23 children per class. District Superintendent Peter Stiepleman said the classrooms are located in elementary, secondary and district facilities.

"We’re running out of space in the existing buildings, which has made us continuously move classrooms from one building to another," Stiepleman said. "That’s been very hard on the teachers and the children."

Chris Belcher, former superintendent of the district, said much the same thing. Even if the funding were secured now, there wouldn’t be any room to accommodate new students.

"We’ll get more funding, but no room for more children," Belcher said. "How many people are helped depends on the capacity to serve the kids."

In 2012, district voters approved a bond issue that funded the construction of a facility for early childhood learning on the grounds of Lange Middle School. The facility will go through the design process in late July and is scheduled to open in 2017, Stiepleman said.

"Our school board and our community appreciate the value and the return on investment associated with early childhood education," Stiepleman said. "It is being planned so that collaboration can occur among our three early childhood programs."

The provisions of the new law won't take effect unless the state's foundation formula — used to determine how much state money public schools get — is fully funded.

"We haven’t seen that happen in a long time," Belcher said.

In May, lawmakers set aside a little more than $3 billion for the formula. But even with a number that large, it was still underfunded by more than $610 million, said Sarah Potter, communications coordinator for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Despite this, Belcher sees the bill as a step in the right direction.

"It will give us more revenue to help do the things we want to do," Belcher said. "I think it’s a good thing, but right now we have to wait and see the economy improve."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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