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Shield's proposal could bolster state aid for Mehlville School District by $6.8 million


March 23, 2005 - By SCOTT MILLER

Staff Reporter

The Mehlville School District could receive about $6.8 million more in state aid next year if lawmakers approve a Senate proposal to revamp Missouri's formula for funding education.

While it could ease some of the burden off Mehlville taxpayers, the measure has received poor reviews from other suburban school districts, such as the Lindbergh School District. And nothing is final.

State Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, authored legislation to revamp the state funding formula and presented it recently to the glaring eye of a Senate committee and the education community. It is only a starting point and likely will change as lawmakers wrestle with it line by line, searching for avenues to funnel as much money to their districts as possible, or at least avoid losing money. Mehlville's projected increase is based on a March 1 simulation by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Superintendent Tim Ricker refused to be interviewed for this story by telephone, instead releasing a written statement saying the district would benefit but not ex-plaining how.

Based on the simulation, it appears Mehlville would receive a large chunk of extra cash because of its high number of students on free and reduced lunch and students who speak English as a second language.

DESE's numbers can change daily as lawmakers fiddle with the formula, however, and the simulations assume the state can fully fund the proposal. But the simulations do offer insight to the direction of the legislation.

Most suburban schools are set to lose, said John Oldani, executive director of the Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis. Oldani wants any new formula to better account for the higher cost of education in suburbia vs. rural Missouri, even if the state can't afford it now.

"Can we afford it right now in the state? No, we just don't have the revenues," Oldani told the Call. "But let's do a formula that we can live with that we may have to fund over time."

While Shields' proposal remains a preliminary draft, it does address some issues of key importance to county schools.

The legislation adds a dollar value modifier, for example, intending to account for the higher cost of living in metropolitan areas. The modifier is capped at 10 percent, however, and Oldani said it should be more.

"We know that it is more than 10 percent more expensive to live here than it is in some remote areas of rural Missouri," he said. "While I really appreciate the dollar modifier — it hasn't been part of the formula in the past — it's too low. It isn't realistic ... But if you talk to someone in rural Missouri (about the legislation), they're going to have concerns too."

Plus, the legislation seems to be playing the shell game with state aid. While districts may receive money from the dollar modifier, they could lose it from a provision allowing the state to grab 20 percent of local revenue increases generated from new construction.

"Districts should be able to keep all of their new construction," Oldani said. "It is absolutely critical to hold-harmless school districts. They depend on new construction. Their additional funds are based on what they can generate themselves — local property taxes, new construction."

Lindbergh Chief Financial Officer Pat Lanane shares Oldani's concerns.

Based on the DESE simulation, Lindbergh would receive an extra $58 per student under Shields' plan, or about $263,700, but Lanane worries more money will be lost in other areas.

Categorical aid, money provided outside of the state formula for specific expenses such as gifted student programs or transportation, for example, could become part of the formula, meaning a huge a loss to Lindbergh.

"Right now, there are more questions than answers," Lanane told the Call. "But at this point, it looks like there's the potential that we'll lose money."

In that case, "I hope they don't change (the current formula)," he said.

The current formula hasn't been popular in St. Louis County, particularly with "hold-harmless'' school districts such as Lindbergh and Mehlville that have received the same amount of state aid from the formula since its inception in 1993. Lindbergh and Mehlville are members of the Coalition to Fund Excellent Schools, which represents about 70 school districts.

A ruling last summer allowed the Coal-ition to Fund Excellent Schools to intervene in a lawsuit filed by the Committee for Educational Equality. While the Coalition to Fund Excellent Schools supports the pending lawsuit, it disagrees with some of the changes the Committee for Educational Equality is pushing.

To download the March 1 simulation, visit DESE's Web site at dese.mo.gov/commissioner/letters/2005/03022005.html.

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