Local school officials taking a wait-and-see approach on funding

State Board of Education seeks delay in phase-in of school funding formula.

By EVAN YOUNG

Lindbergh and Mehlville school district officials had the same reaction last week to Gov. Jay Nixon’s proposal for funding K-12 education in the coming fiscal year: Wait and see.

Nixon vowed in his Jan. 19 State of the State address to “keep stable funding” for elementary and secondary education “not only for fiscal year 2011, but also for fiscal year 2012.”

“We must continue to invest in young minds from the day our children enter their first classrooms to the day they accept their diplomas,” Nixon said in his address. “So even in a difficult year, we will protect our investment in K-12 classrooms.”

Nixon’s $23.1 billion fiscal 2012 budget proposal recommends spending $5.1 billion on elementary and secondary education, down from $5.3 billion this year.

The proposal includes $2.9 billion for the state’s foundation formula, a decrease of $112.2 million from the $3 billion appropriated in fiscal 2011.

To reach “level funding” in fiscal 2012, Nixon would ask school districts to save $112.2 million in federal funds that would be distributed through the formula in fiscal 2011.

The funds are part of a federal jobs bill approved by Congress last August, from which Missouri received $189 million for education. The state must spend the money by June 30, the end of fiscal 2011.

The governor’s proposal is subject to approval from the General Assembly, which began appropriations procedures last week.

“That would be good news compared to what we’ve heard was going to happen,” Mehlville Superintendent Terry Noble said of the governor’s proposal, adding, however, that the state “always can and will” withhold funds if revenue doesn’t meet projections.

Noble said Mehlville, which currently faces a projected $4.8 million budget shortfall in fiscal 2012, would indeed carry over its share of the $112.2 million payment.

“If we get a late payment this fiscal year, we won’t spend it,” he said. “We’ll use it for next year’s budget as requested because there is going to be that shortfall in the formula. It’s not going to be a flat amount; it’s going to be less, and this is to fill that gap.”

The superintendent said he hoped to get more details about Nixon’s proposal from Department of Elementary and Secondary Education officials during a Missouri School Boards Association regional meeting this week.

“Maybe we’ll have a clearer understanding after that meeting of how all of this is supposed to work,” Noble said.

Lindbergh Schools officials also were hesitant to speculate on the governor’s proposal without knowing more details.

“It depends on what he means by flat funding,” Chief Financial Officer Pat Lanane said. “Does flat funding mean in all areas what was given out last year will be exactly the same? Or is that a total, and maybe some of the funds are shifting?”

Even if fiscal 2012 K-12 funding were to remain identical to 2011 levels across all categories, Lindbergh still would feel a small pinch because of increased operating costs, Lanane said.

“We have to wait and see what that means …,” he said. “The devil is in the details. We’ll be watching it very closely.”

Noting Republicans may have a veto-proof majority in the General Assembly against Nixon, a Democrat, Lanane added, “I don’t know how much power the governor is even going to have.”

Nixon’s budget proposal also recommends $144.7 million for early childhood special education — an increase from $135.2 million in 2011 — and $16 million for the Parents as Teachers program — up from $13 million in 2011.

Nixon also recommends $97.8 million be appropriated for school transportation in fiscal 2012, an increase of roughly $7 million over 2011.

The Legislature last year appropriated $152.8 million for transportation, but Nixon in July withheld $70 million, reducing transportation funding to $82.8 million. 

The governor announced Jan. 13 he was releasing $7.5 million of those withheld funds to help schools cover increased fuel costs — bumping fiscal 2011 school transportation funding to $90.3 million.

Noble has said the release of funds could mean an estimated $30,000 to $40,000 for transportation in Mehlville; Lanane estimates Lindbergh will receive $20,000.

State Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, believes Nixon should release all of the transportation funds he’s withheld, citing improved state revenue collections.

“That hurts Lindbergh and Mehlville,” Lembke said of the transportation withholding. “That hurts our schools because that’s categorical. That’s outside of the formula. That’s where Mehlville and Lindbergh get a good lion’s share of their money from the state.”

Lembke said Nixon’s proposal for funding K-12 education next year is a short-term fix.

“We’re putting off the inevitable,” Lembke said. “When that (federal) money dries up, our schools are going to have to take a drastic cut all at one time.”

School districts are “getting extra money this year, and really there’s no strings attached on how they spend that money …,” he added. “Hopefully they’ll hold on to it; we can’t force them to hold on to it. But the feds tell us we have to spend it this (fiscal) year … It really puts us kind of in a bind.”

In related news, the state Board of Education sent a letter to lawmakers last week asking them to postpone the phase-in schedule of the school funding formula.

The formula, adopted by the General Assembly in 2005, was designed to gradually increase funding for public education over a period of seven years.

The law calls for state K-12 education funds to increase by $120 million each year through fiscal 2013. The formula by law recalculates each year until 2013, assuming full funding is available.

But while the first three school years were funded as scheduled, no new funds have been available since the 2009-2010 school year. Without new funding, the formula will divert funds to some school districts and away from others in a manner inconsistent with the original intent of the law, according to a state Board of Education news release.

“At the time the new formula was adopted, no one envisioned the economic situation we would be facing,” DESE Deputy Commissioner Ronald Lankford stated in the release. “It wasn’t designed for less than full funding.”