District will study suit, then weigh signing on

Wednesday, August 6, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:05 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 4, 2008

Mid-Missouri school officials have found, much to their dismay, that their already bad financial situation might actually get worse.

On Sunday, 147 districts throughout the state decided legal action might be in their future. The districts contend that, under the current foundation formula, state money is not being distributed fairly.

Although Columbia is not part of the suit, it took one of the largest single revenue hits in the state this year, receiving $9.1 million less than last year. No decision has been made on whether to join in any litigation, mainly because there is still much research to be done, said superintendent Phyllis Chase.

“We are still studying the issue,” Chase said. “Certainly, we have concerns about adequacy and state funding.”

Chase, along with school board president Russell Still, hopes to have enough information ready by September or October to make a recommendation to the board, from which they will take action.

“The way the formula works at present, I think it works to our disadvantage,” Still said.

Some provisions of the formula prevent certain districts from being cut, thus increasing the amount taken from other districts, he said.

But as much as the current problem is about a spending formula, it’s also about falling revenues. The Tuscumbia public school board in Miller County knows that all too well.

Budget and revenue shortages left the district with reserve levels of $160,000 — levels so low that they are concerned about simply keeping schools open for next year.

“The bottom line for us is economics,” said Tuscumbia School Board President Tim Pryor. “If (funding is) not done differently, it is going to kill us.”

In districts such as Tuscumbia, state funding is essential and school officials are finding that the funding is becoming harder to come by.

“A penny levy in this district will only generate $760,” said superintendent Burnell Crain.

Crain’s district has a total assessed value — considering both real estate and personal property — of $7.6 million. In comparison, Columbia has a total valuation of nearly $1.3 billion, according to Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Web site. In addition, Columbia voters passed a 19-cent-per-$100 assessed value tax levy in April, which is expected to raise about $4 million. These numbers play an important role in the formula’s calculations.

“So, for us to generate enough money to build a building is a near impossibility,” Crain said. “We desperately need state aid to equalize that.”

The districts’ decision to turn to Missouri courts has precedent. In 1993, a lawsuit was filed over similar complaints. It resulted in the Outstanding Schools Act of 1993, a major piece of legislation that established the current foundation formula.

However, local school board presidents and superintendents said a lawsuit is time-consuming and expensive, and it does not guarantee results.

“In the early 1990s, it took a lawsuit to get it done, which is really a shame,” said Michael Lewton, community R-VI school district superintendent. “And I think it’s sad that we’ve even had to consider it this time.”

Nonetheless, many local small school districts are preparing to fight in the courts, if necessary.

“When you withhold only state money and do nothing about local money, you compound the problem we already have,” Crain said. “We felt like we had no choice.”

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