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Bahr pushes to consolidate rural school districts

Saint Louis, Mo. — In some of Missouri’s most rural communities, school districts can be simply microscopic in size. Rep. Kurt Bahr is looking to change that as lawmakers continue to wrangle over broader reforms.

Bahr, R-St. Charles, sits as Chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations for Elementary and Secondary Education, and filed HB1292 largely to “start a debate,” that he hopes will spill over into next year. The bill would require any school district in Missouri to consolidate administratively with another nearby district. Bahr’s broader issue is with the $15 million allocated from state funds for the coming fiscal year that goes specifically to the tiniest rural districts that can’t generate enough revenue to meet minimum funding standards.

Those districts, Bahr says, should be folded into nearby resources, rather than getting a “subsidy” from the state to function.

“This bill was designed to raise awareness to the subsidy we give to small districts,” Bahr said, citing a similar bill offered in neighboring Arkansas as his inspiration. “It’s creating controversy to facilitate conversation. Change is not something the education establishment likes.”

Bahr has been a reliable voice for Tea Party conservatives and particularly active voice on education, defining himself in large part by his vocal opposition to Common Core. He’s been publicly critical of the “education establishment” that he says isn’t an efficient arbiter of taxpayer dollars. But that same establishment tends to fire back that Bahr’s philosophy on education is simply off target.

“You can’t equate a business model with an education model,” said Rep. Mike Lair, R-Chillicothe, a former teacher who once held Bahr’s post atop education Appropriations. “Schools are mandated to take whatever it is given and to do their best. But under a business model you wouldn’t just take whatever raw materials you got. The models aren’t compatible.”

Lair said while there were ways to deliver education more efficiently, consolidation should ultimately be a local decision, not something “hardnosed” by the state.

“You’ve got all these right wing folks that sing at the top of their lungs about how great local control is,” Lair said. “But now they want to take it away from these people. [Consolidation] can work. It can’t be where you come in and draw a circle and say that anyone in the circle goes to school here.”

Bahr said small communities are worried consolidation will close schools, which he says simply isn’t a requirement of merging, but sometimes a result. The larger fight is likely coming next year, as Bahr and several other lawmakers intend to begin working on a top-to-bottom rewrite of the Foundation Formula.

Bahr’s bill has not been assigned a committee and he says he doesn’t expect it to. But, determined to make his point, he reiterated that there will be more to come next year.