Going to court or changing leadership in the Missouri General Assembly are the only ways a Columbia lawmaker thinks state-funding considerations for public education will change.
State Rep. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, told the Columbia Board of Education on Tuesday that current leaders come from “hold harmless” districts where schools do not feel the budget cuts as deeply and that only a revolt from the rural districts may bring more money to schools.
Graham’s was one of many views expressed at a morning meeting between area legislators and the board.
“The money’s not there right now unless you want to close prisons, mental health facilities, elderly care and the university, because those are the only places where there is money,” Rep. Vicky Riback Wilson, D-Columbia, told the board.
Wilson faulted what she deems indifference to public schools by some of her colleagues. “I hear newer representatives saying they don’t want to raise taxes and that if the community really cares, (the community will) raise the taxes,” Wilson said.
Board member David Ballenger said he has heard and read that there is no more money for education but doesn’t understand what legislators are thinking.
“If you want us to make education a better product, someone has to stand up,” Ballenger said.
Along with a lack of additional funds and reluctant representatives, Graham said there was a problem with getting revenue estimates last year.
“We had the House budget chairman refuse to commit to a number, and if we can’t agree on a number, we can’t agree on the money,” he said. “I have a feeling that this will repeat with the election year.”
Rep. Wes Shoemyer, D-Clarence, blamed some of the education funding problems on campaign promises.
“There was a leadership promise of no new taxes no matter what, instead of leaving it open,” he said.
Misconceptions in the legislature also contribute to funding problems, Graham said.
“They talk about the school districts in Missouri having $1 billion in reserves, but if (Columbia is) short, you can’t just borrow from Callaway,” he said.
Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, also raised the issue of reserves for each district.
“People, primarily legislators, don’t know why you have reserves. They don’t realize these can’t be tapped into and that they’re just good fiscal policy.”
However, school board members repeatedly emphasized the difficulties of trying to educate without proper funding.
“We don’t have the option (of not using the reserves). We’re going to educate our children,” Ballenger said. “What happens in Jefferson City is critical, but we’ll take our reserves all the way down.”
Talking about functioning on reserves, Superintendent Phyllis Chase said the district spends $10 million a month on salary.
“Two months out and then we’re bankrupt. Eighty percent of our budget is employees, and the only place we could cut from would be teachers. This when we’re trying to keep up with No Child Left Behind requirements and accreditation for teachers.”
Representatives also voiced a need for a greater understanding of the importance of education in the public and in the legislature.
“You have to convince the public why it’s important,” Harris said. “There is a belief in the inefficiency of education and a lack of understanding why it’s needed to deliver services and why those services are important.”
Chuck Headley, vice president of the board, told the representatives they are not taken for granted and urged them to “help us and the rest of the people in the state.”