Quick vote awaited on school funds

Thursday, February 10, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:22 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 6, 2008

With the state legislature on the clock to fix the way money is distributed to school districts, the committee taking the first crack at the task has set a four-week deadline.

The joint Senate-House committee’s chairman, Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, promised a vote on a recommendation by March 1. He estimated the cost of creating an equitable system for funding education at $400 million to $600 million annually over several years.

The committee’s first meeting focused on Shields’ proposal to overhaul the philosophy behind the state formula from one that rewards districts for increasing local taxes to one that distributes aid based on need.

But the panel spent almost as much time requesting data as discussing Shields’ ideas.

This prompted concern among some of the panel’s 14 members about what Shields called a “tight and aggressive” schedule. The committee plans just three more formal meetings with no public comment.

“It will be forced through because of the pending lawsuit, but it will definitely be a rush,” Sen. Rita Heard Days, D-St. Louis, said. “But whenever we rush on important decisions, we’re doomed to make mistakes of some kind. We do it every year, and every year we need to come back and make corrections of some sort.”

Days felt it would take at least six weeks to adequately absorb the data and consider all the possible alternatives.

Republican members said the joint panel would get a boost from work done last session by an interim committee. Only Shields and two members from the House delegation served on that panel.

“If they weren’t on the interim committee, I can understand why they would be concerned,” Shields said. “But there are several people here that also served on the interim committee, and I think they’ll agree that this is doable.”

One of the House’s returning delegates, Rep. Maynard Wallace, R-Thornfield, said concerns about the time frame are overblown because the General Assembly tends to take as much time as it has.

Rep. Brian Baker, R-Belton, said any problems with the committee’s recommendations can be ironed out as they’re discussed at public hearings in Senate and House committees.

All legislation must be sent through a committee before it can be accepted for floor debate by either body. The rules prohibit a joint committee from sending legislation to floor debate.

The committee probably will work from a plan that uses factors such as state assessments and ACT scores, advanced course enrollment, college placement and dropout rates to determine the highest performing districts in the state, several Republicans on the committee said.

According to Shields’ proposal, the amount these districts spend per pupil would be used to determine how best to spread state aid.

The plan would increase funding for districts below current minimums but would not reduce funding from districts above the minimum, which includes Columbia Public Schools, according Shields’ proposal. One of the members, freshman Rep. Ed Robb, R-Columbia, campaigned heavily on a proposal to replace property taxes with a statewide earnings tax. An earnings tax is similar to an income tax, but because residents pay an income tax based upon their residence, people who work in Missouri and live in a different state would also be taxed.

Robb has said he is confident his ideas will play a significant role in the committee’s ultimate solution and questioned whether existing methods would raise enough money to pay for the increases. Committee leaders, however, said only parts of Robb’s plan will be used.

“He has some very interesting ideas, and it’s important for the committee to hear them, but we might not be able to do everything that he wants,” Baker said.

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