JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Bob Holden said Friday he was releasing $127 million for school districts and higher education, money he had earlier withheld citing an unbalanced state budget.
The Columbia Public School District will receive $2.87 million of the funds, according to projections from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Columbia school district representatives have previously said they would use any released funds to replenish their monetary reserve, which they dipped into earlier to pay for the $735,000 in withheld funds from the 2003-2004 budget.
The withheld funds are monies that were approved as part of the district’s budget, but were later not distributed to the district by the governor because of state financial difficulties.
Now, however, Jacque Cowherd, deputy superintendent of the district, said the board could change that plan if they want to use the money elsewhere.
“I don’t know a lot at this point about where this money will go,” Cowherd said. “What I do know is that, in the current year, we won’t make cuts because of governor’s withholdings.”
The district has an estimated $8.7 million deficit for the 2004-2005 school year. The district recently decided that base-pay for teachers won’t increase, but it will maintain the normal salary schedule, which will cost $2.2 million and the elimination of 50 full-time positions.
Board member Kerry Crist said she thinks the possible uses of the released funds will definitely be an item of discussion at the Monday board meeting.
“When we decided the money would go into reserves before, it was a hypothetical situation,” she said. “Now it is a reality.”
She said everyone wants to keep teachers and increase salaries, but reserve money is important to future economic well being.
Cowherd said the money will help no matter where the board decides to use it.
“If the money goes into reserves, that could save positions or help increase pay for teachers in the future,” he said.
The released money will probably start flowing to Missouri’s 524 school districts in May, Jim Morris, spokesman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said.
Members of the legislature, especially majority Republicans, have urged Holden for months to release the full funding.
Holden said Friday he had just learned that a $50 million judgment owed by the state to SBC Communications Inc. won’t be finalized until the next fiscal year. Another factor, he said, was that the state has saved money by streamlining some operations and instituting a hiring freeze.
“I have said that I would release funding for education as soon as it is fiscally responsible to do so, and this new information makes that release possible,” Holden said.
Money that is unspent before the current fiscal year expires June 30 can be held in reserve by districts for next year, Holden and legislators said.
Republican leaders, including House Budget Committee Chairman Carl Bearden, said they were pleased the funds were being released, calling it proof that the revenue projections on which they based this year’s budget were accurate.
State revenue through the first nine months of the current fiscal year is up 5.2 percent over the previous year, excluding a one-time grant from the federal government. Holden denied that the revenue picture was a factor in his decision, saying the state was also paying out higher tax refunds this year.
But Bearden, R-St. Charles, said Holden’s official reasons for releasing the money now were bogus since the conditions cited by the Democratic governor have been known for months.
The SBC Communications case stems from a 2002 decision by the Missouri Supreme Court, which held that the company had overpaid its Missouri taxes and ordered a commission to determine how much the company was owed.
The state budgeted $50 million for the SBC refund, but the commission won’t decide the final amount for months. Department of Revenue general counsel Patricia Churchill said she learned in February that the state didn’t have to file court papers until July — after the next fiscal year begins.
Holden said he learned about another revenue source Thursday — an unexpected windfall of $8 million in the state’s settlement with major tobacco companies. The state’s hiring freeze and other efficiencies have saved $40 million, he said.