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Governor open to all ideas to revamp state's education funding


February 09, 2005 - By SCOTT MILLER

Staff Reporter

Gov. Matt Blunt committed to the arduous task of re-vamping the state's formula for funding education, but if the effort falls through, he has not ruled out proposals from south county lawmakers that could generate millions for south county school districts.

Two legislative proposals are pending in Jefferson City that would curb the practice of freezing state aid at 1993 levels for hold-harmless school districts like Lindbergh and Mehlville. One adds a cost-inflation multiplier to state aid and the other offers more cash for schools participating in a voluntary student-transfer program.

"We're making an effort not to be critical when people offer those ideas," Blunt said during a visit to Trautwein Accelerated School last week. "We don't need to shoot ideas down as soon as they're offered up. "It's all part of a larger discussion about how we distribute Missouri's tax dollars to school districts all across Missouri," he added.

Rep. Walt Bivins, R-Oakville, introduced the two proposals, saying Mehlville could get roughly $1.2 million more next year. The two pieces of legislation could funnel around $500,000 more to Lind-bergh next year, according to information provided by Pat Lanane, Lindbergh's assistant superintendent for finance and chief financial officer.

The measures would provide schools temporary assistance until a new funding formula is adopted, Bivins said.

Seeing the potential of more money flowing into south county schools, Reps. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, and Sue Schoemehl, D-Oakville, signed on to the proposal.

But the governor hasn't committed to anything, including how and where he intends to spend his suggested $170 million increase for education next year. If the money gets plugged into the current funding formula, Mehlville and Lindbergh won't see any of it. As hold-harmless districts, they've received the same state funding since 1993 and will next year if the formula isn't changed.

While he remains tight-lipped about where the $170 million will go, some of Blunt's suggestions on revamping the formula could benefit Mehlville and Lind-bergh.

"We're committed to crafting a new formula this year, this legislative session," Blunt said. "Certainly some components of the principals I've advised for the legislature would help schools like Mehlville that are hold-harmless. Distributing, for example, gambling revenue on a per-pupil basis to school districts across the state (rather than plugging it into the formula) would help hold-harmless school districts."

"I support that," Lembke told the Call. "That's what we tried to do the first year we were up here and we (Republicans) took control of the House. For Mehlville, I think it would have been about a $6 million infusion of new money."

"We would love that proposal," Lanane said. "We currently get zero gambling money.

"That's not a new, untapped pool of money. You're kind of rearranging the deck chairs," he added, explaining that lawmakers will have a hard time selling a measure that shifts money away from out-state schools.

Mehlville Superintendent Tim Ricker re-fused to be interviewed by the Call for this story.

Blunt also suggested allowing school districts to levy an income or sales tax instead of a property tax.

"If you get a few districts to opt out (of property taxes) I don't think it's going to fix the overwhelming problem of the state," said Lembke, explaining that St. Louis County still would pump more tax money into state education than it receives in return.

"We'll still have the burden of funding education," he said. "St. Louis is the driving economic force of Missouri."

Lanane said, "The devil will be in the details. I don't know if it would be a benefit to the taxpayers or not ... Sales tax is not a very dependable source of income."

Schoemehl wants to see the governor's proposals in detailed, legislative writing before gauging an opinion.

"(Blunt's ideas) are just words," she said, "and I have no comment on that."

Blunt, Lembke and Bivins all acknowledge the difficulty getting the entire state to agree on a new formula.

"It's the hardest thing that state government ever does," Blunt said.

The current formula is more favorable for out-state districts because they have lower tax bases, meaning they receive more state aid. Changing the formula could mean shifting some aid from poor to rich school districts, a particularly tough sale when some districts, such as Clayton and Ladue, spend around $13,000 per pupil while some out-state districts barely muster $5,000 per pupil.

Plus, Blunt has proposed some contentious cuts to find an extra $170 million for education, including cutting the Medi-caid rolls and closing a St. Louis school for developmentally challenged students.

"Those who oppose the budget really don't leave any option but a tax increase," Blunt said. "If you're opposed to the budget that I presented to the Missouri General Assembly, you're either for a tax increase or you want to take money from our schools and put it into other social welfare programs in state government. We've got to make an investment in our future. Our investment in the future means making investment in school districts and in school buildings and in classrooms all across the state."

To spark the discussion on changing the formula, House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, last week appointed a House Special Committee to Reform Education Funding. No south county lawmakers serve on the committee.

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