The Big Train Wreck.


  The Big Train Wreck.
   The Perfect Storm.
   The Broken Blackboard.
   It goes by many names, but it all comes down to one color.
   Just about everyone agrees Missouri’s public education funding system is broken, and that the remedies would be extremely unpopular in a dreary economy.
   But educators are imploring lawmakers for changes so that a crisis doesn’t become the catastrophe that has enveloped schools in Illinois and other states.
   Missouri is looking at a budget deficit of $200 million to $500 million. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives trimmed a $106 million increase in funding to the state’s 523 school districts. State aid to college students also could be reduced.
   Many area prep administrators are planning for reductions in state aid of anywhere from four percent to six percent for the fiscal year that begins July 1 on top of local cuts that already have been made.
   “You can divide less however you want and you’re still going to come out shortchanged,” said Clopton Superintendent Terry Robertson.
   And the nightmare may be far from over.
   “What we’re doing is tightening our belts,” said Hannibal Superintendent Dr. Jill Janes. “Our fear is what’s going to happen a year from now or two years from now.”
   “It’s clear next year won’t be the end of this crisis,” added Canton Superintendent David Tramel. “You’ve got to prepare yourself that next year won’t be the worst.”

Root of problem
   Many administrators say a wrench got thrown into the machine in 2005.
   That’s when the state began moving away from a tax-driven funding formula to a student-needs system.
   Previously, the state provided districts with funding based upon tax rates and the number of students.
   The new formula was more subjective, requiring the state to set an adequacy target and using it to determine the minimum amount of funding each district needed to educate kids.
   Many school districts objected that the formula was not fair and joined a lawsuit to stop it. A judge in 2007 ruled against the schools, saying the system was “a reasonable attempt to meet” Missouri’s obligations under its constitution.
   Robertson, who has been an administrator in Illinois and Missouri, was one of the outspoken critics of the formula switch and says lawmakers still aren’t getting the message.
   “We have this belief this is going to right itself,” Robertson said. “It won’t if we continue this path.”
   “To me, the whole system is messed up in terms of fairness,” agreed North Shelby Superintendent Larry Smoot.
   The state cuts could come on top of other reductions made in Jefferson City and even more severe budget slashing by local school boards.
   Palmyra R-1 Superintendent Eric Churchwell understands that legislators are under pressure to meet a growing list of needs with a shrinking pool of dollars.
   But he also believes that without a more dedicated commitment to education, Missouri will fail to meet students’ needs.
   “The pie is only so big and everybody wants their piece,” Churchwell said. “The thing that scares me is that as state funding decreases, we’re limited in what we can do to generate dollars.”
   Funding proposals have covered everything from state tax increases to redirecting money from other departments. The trouble is, revenue is down across the board and lawmakers are reluctant to hike taxes in a bad economy.
   Robertson isn’t confident that Jefferson City can find a solution that appeases everyone.
   “The people who are supposed to fix this are the people who let it happen,” he said.

The cost
   Here’s how much area school districts stand to lose if the four percent to six percent funding formula reduction is approved.
   The figures were calculated using this year’s budgets:
   *Hannibal: $480,000 to $720,000.
   *Palmyra: $110,000 to $165,000.
   *Marion County R-2: $40,000 to $61,000.
   *Monroe City: $80,000 to $120,000.
   *Ralls County R-2: $84,000 to $126,000.
   *Canton: $80,000 to $90,000.
   *Lewis County C-1: $165,000 to $250,000.
   *North Shelby: $52,000 to $78,000.
   *South Shelby: $112,306 to $168,459.
   *Bowling Green: $177,250 to $266,000.
   *Louisiana: $100,000 to $160,000.
   *Clopton: $80,000 to $110,000.
   *Troy: $876,000 to $1.3 million.
   *Winfield: $250,000 to $350,000.
   *Silex: $58,142 to $87,213.
   *Madison C-3: $42,500 to $64,000.
   *Paris: $66,000 to $100,000.
   *Holliday: $8,000 to $10,000.
   The figures do not take into account the possible loss in state funding for transportation and other operations. They also don’t reflect federal funding losses or changes in local assessed valuation.

Local cuts
   The budget ax already had fallen in just about every area district even before state lawmakers began to eye next year’s funding.
   Paris R-1 trimmed staff and programs last year, and will do so again. Clopton raised taxes. Bowling Green reduced spending by a whopping $1 million.
   Many educators wonder if there’s any light at the end of the tunnel.
   “We’re going to have to start cutting things that people don’t want to see cut,” said Linda Henderson, a social studies teacher in Bowling Green who is president of the local teachers union. “I hate to see that happen.”
   Hannibal schools have been more fortunate than most. The district hasn’t had to make major cuts, but administrators aren’t resting.
   While they applaud Northeast Missouri legislators for their attention to the problem, they urge a speedy decision about cuts.
   “If we know what the cuts are going to be, we can prepare,” Janes said, adding that reductions should be made equitably to avoid a situation where “some school districts win and some school districts lose.”
   As state revenue shrinks, class sizes generally go up and programs have to be thrown on the scrap heap. Eventually, schools might not be able to meet minimum educational requirements, and that could lead to more drastic measures.
   The Kansas City school board recently agreed to close almost half its schools and fire 700 staff to avoid bankruptcy.
   The state also has stepped in to run smaller districts that have become unaccredited. Since such takeovers are rare, no one knows what would happen if multiple districts failed all at once.
   “They can’t take over every school,” Churchwell said.

What’s ahead
   Smoot says what’s on the minds of all who are looking for solutions.
   “There are so many questions and so few answers,” he said. “It puts school administrators in a pretty perplexing position.”
   “You’re preparing for the unknown,” agreed Winfield Superintendent Jim Chandler. “I don’t think anyone knows where it’s going to end.”
   Administrators worry that legislators will take the path of least resistance and continue with the status quo. Even worse, they say, would be to choke off schools that are using limited resources as best they can.
   “Don’t forget outlying Missouri,” Churchwell said. “As a whole, we do a pretty darn good job with what we’re given.”
   “Our number one priority is to make sure students achieve their goals,” Henderson said. “That’s what we have to keep the focus on.”
   Educators say instructional basics will be a key, because the picture likely won’t brighten until the economy improves and major formula changes are implemented.
   Superintendents have been told that in two years, they may be looking at cuts in state aid five times to 10 times greater than what they’re facing now.
   The possibility is discouraging.
   “The absolute doom and gloom is we could be losing one-fourth of our state aid in a couple of years,” Tramel said. “I’m not inclined to believe much good news right now.”
   Despite the outlook, Janes has found one reason to smile.
   “In Missouri, at least the state is still paying us,” she said. “You have school districts in Illinois that aren’t getting their payments.”