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District officials lobby legislators for more money
Columbia clamors for school funding.

Columbia Public Schools officials say they’re ready to ask voters to pay more property taxes if the state’s not willing to ask for a tax increase to support public education.

Money - or the lack thereof - dominated discussion yesterday between Columbia school officials and local lawmakers in the annual meeting between legislators and the school board.

Administrators say they aren’t sure yet just how much new funding the district will not receive under the recently implemented foundation formula. Early calculations show Columbia receiving $44.8 million in state aid this school year, up from $44.2 million last year. That $600,000 increase is well below Columbia’s prior annual increases of about $2 million.

Rep. Judy Baker, D-Columbia, questioned whether local residents would have to make up that difference with an increase in property taxes.

"At some point, we will probably have to do that," Superintendent Phyllis Chase said.

During the discussion of the state’s school-funding formula, Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, said the "elephant in the room" was the pending lawsuit filed against the state. Columbia teamed up with other school districts to sue the state, demanding a funding formula that provides adequate education dollars in an equitable fashion.

But if a judge rules in favor of the districts and demands that lawmakers spend more money on education, "we can’t pass that on our own," Graham said.

If the state has to redirect existing education dollars, Graham said, "it would cut our higher education budget in half."

"No, it would eliminate it," said Rep. Ed Robb, R-Columbia.

The state isn’t going to cut social programs or health care, so boosting funds for K-12 education would dip into the $1 billion budget for higher education, "and this community will be devastated. For every dollar this school district would get, the" University of Missouri-Columbia "would lose $7."

The state’s Hancock amendment forbids the state from implementing a significant tax increase without a vote of the people. "We’re handcuffed," Graham said.

School board President Karla DeSpain challenged lawmakers to "step up to the plate and put it to a vote of the people."

Rep. Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, said no one is willing to offer a large-scale tax proposal like the 1993 tax package that supported the then-new foundation formula.

"We are in a ‘no new taxes’ environment right now," he said. "The cigarette tax didn’t even pass last week. Let’s be real, folks."

Supporting a school-funding formula that provides adequate money to schools is at the top of the district’s legislative priorities this year.

The school district is also urging lawmakers to support funding for special education, restore funding that lets students take Advanced Placement tests at no charge and increase the bonding capacity from 15 percent to 20 percent.

One priority, opposition to a so-called 65 percent plan, isn’t necessary, Robb said. The plan, proposed by Gov. Matt Blunt before the last legislative session, would force districts to spend at least 65 percent of their budgets on classroom instruction.

But, Robb said, "It’s a dead issue."

Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, said the school board could "substitute it with another poll-driven, equally inane gubernatorial idea. … The governor thought this was going to benefit him politically, he pounced and it backfired on him."

The board also urged lawmakers to oppose any type of tuition tax credit that would give tax breaks to those who contribute funds to allow children to enroll in private or religious schools.

When Robb questioned that opposition, DeSpain said it takes money from public schools by decreasing tax revenue. Robb responded by challenging them to consider eliminating tax credits for low-income housing, neighborhood assistance and historical preservation, as well.

"That’s different," DeSpain said. Children from families not taking advantage of a private or religious school program would be left behind in failing schools, she said. "Why not just fix the school?"

Some lawmakers assured the school district that they would represent their interests in Jefferson City.

Board member David Ballenger challenged them to put their money where their mouths are.

"Why is it so difficult for funding to happen in elementary and secondary education?" Ballenger asked. "Everyone says they’re very interested in education, but there’s a tremendous problem in getting the funding necessary to provide the quality of education we need in today’s time. … Someone educated us. It’s our responsibility to educate the next in line. So do whatever you can do to help us."


Reach Janese Heavin at (573) 815-1705 or jheavin@tribmail.com.

 

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