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Lawmakers divided on DESE request for emergency funds

  

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Earlier this week, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education requested, on behalf of the Normandy School District, $6.8 million in emergency funds.

Normandy, an unaccredited school district, has seen more than 1,100 students transfer to Francis Howell School District in St. Charles, because of a state Supreme Court ruling earlier this summer requiring unaccredited districts to foot the bill for tuition and transportation costs for any child wishing to attend a neighboring district.

The cost has hit Normandy hard and DESE and the State Board of Education say the school will not be able to fulfill its obligations to transfer students, or the more than 3,000 students remaining in their system, without emergency funding. Normandy officials estimate the school will be out of funds by late March, should the money not be allocated.

Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkswood
Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkswood

The State Board of Education officially asked Gov. Jay Nixon to make the funds part of the annual supplemental budget he sends to lawmakers reconvening in January. If approved, the funds would me immediately available for fiscal year 2014.

But, lawmakers in Jefferson City hold the purse strings to the state budget, and whether the money will come, and from where, is still up in the air.

“I’m not inclined to throw good money after bad,” House Budget Chairman Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, tells The Missouri Times. “I’m going to need to be very convinced that this money is going to a useful purpose and is not just a wasteful spending of our tax dollars. This is a district that has been struggling for years, so I’m not sure I’m inclined to just hand them more money right away.”

The supplemental budget and the DESE request will have to pass through Stream’s budget committee before being voted on by the rest of the House. Then, it must pass the Senate.

Because it is a supplemental request, it will not pass through the education appropriation committee, which Rep. Mike Lair, R-Chillicothe, chairs.

Lair also chairs the Joint Committee on Education, which is holding a hearing Oct. 1 dealing specifically with the school transfer issue. Lair says he hopes the meeting wouldn’t be a “re-hashing” of old ideas, but rather a serious discussion about the transfer issue.

“If the money is for the kids, if it’s really going to help them then I’d support it,” Lair says. “Brick and mortar isn’t important to me in education, what’s important is: are the kids getting an education? If they aren’t, how can we fix that?”

Rep. Mike Lair, R-Chillocothe
Rep. Mike Lair, R-Chillicothe

Lair says he’d likely support the money moving through his committee were it not a supplemental request, but that a major deciding factor would be who would be in charge of the money once it was allocated.

“Is DESE going to have taken control of this district by then?” he asks. “I want to know who would be spending the money. But that said, if the alternative to us not giving the money is that these kids get sucked out of the school they’ve been in for a semester and put back in their failing district at home, well then I think we need to seriously consider the funds. I want to do whatever will sustain the kids in this system right now.”

Further questions arise if the money is not allocated and Normandy is unable to meet its financial obligations to Francis Howell. If they cannot fund the transfer of students, Francis Howell is under no legal obligation to accept them, but Normandy would be in violation of the law.

“I’d argue we are violating the law right now,” Stream says. “We’ve got 3,000 kids who remained in Normandy by choice, but these are kids in a district that isn’t accredited and the state constitution says that every child has a right to a quality education.”

Stream says he and other lawmakers would likely seek changed to the 1993 Outstanding Schools Act which, in part, created a statutory transfer option be made available by unaccredited districts.

“The education establishment: the teachers unions and school board association and the school administrators association, they have all failed at fixing these failing schools,” Stream explains. “So the legislature is now required to try to do it. And I’m just not inclined to keep pumping new state money into a bad system.”

Stream says if he did give the money out, he’d likely see to take it from the foundation formula for education, rather than allocate new money or go outside the education department for the funds.

Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills
Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills

Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, represents a large part of Normandy, and says he thinks it was “odd” for Stream to take a position against the emergency funds.

“I don’t call anything dealing with education ‘throwing money at it,’” Smith says. “It cheapens the experience to talk about ‘throwing money’ at kids to get a good education. It’s a shared responsibility because this can happen in a rural community too with an unaccredited district. We have to have a serious discussion about education in this state and not by bringing in some California company or telling kids they have to stay in a bad place.”

Smith says he’d likely seek out St. Charles representatives as allies in the fight for emergency funds and that he’d also be engaged with members of the budget committee on behalf of his Normandy constituents.

“No representative from Francis Howell wants to have a thousand kids in his district for free, [the] school can’t afford that,” Smith says. “So I hope they join me in helping fund those kids to attend so their own districts don’t suffer.”