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Legislators, group leaders speak out about how budget restrictions will impact school budgets


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Missouri Association of School Administrators — a statewide organization representing school superintendents — sent out an email last week to all of their members. The email came just minutes after Gov. Jay Nixon formally announced more than $400 million in budgetary freezes in anticipation of a possible override of his veto of a massive tax cut bill, House Bill 253.

Nixon’s freezes, he said, were a “down payment” on the bill, which — if passed — could result in billions of dollars lost in state revenue. MASA’s email was direct to its members. It’s message? Prepare for budget cuts and formulate a contingency plan if the veto of HB 253 is overridden.

Gov. Jay Nixon
Gov. Jay Nixon

“Our members finalized school budgets back in May with the understanding that this would be the funding available,” MASA Director of Legislative Advocacy Mike Lodewegen said. “If this veto is overridden the budget withholds will stay, and maybe even grow, and we need to be prepared for that loss of funds.”

The largest withhold impacting K-12 public education come in the form of a cut to a scheduled increase for school funding foundation formula. The Missouri legislature increased funding for the formula by $66 million this year. Nixon has frozen that growth, along with nearly $350 million more in spending, worried that the triggers associated with the passage of HB 253 will cause the state to appropriate more funds than it has.

Lodewegen said the cut would impact districts differently depending on the amount they receive in state funds, but that it would equal about a 1 percent cut of state aid across the board for most school districts. In rural areas, where state funds are higher than in affluent suburban communities, the impact will be felt the most, he said. Lodewegen said his members were actively contacting their representatives to urge them to vote against a veto override in the name of preserving funds for K-12 education.

Rep. Nate Walker, R-Kirksville, said he’s already received calls from local educators. Walker said while he had not made his final decision, he is currently “leaning” toward sustaining the veto (voting “no”) because of the risk he sees to public education.

“I think both sides have played some political games here,” Walker told The Missouri Times. “And that’s the frustrating part. How do you cut through all of that and see what is really going to happen?”

Rep. Nate Walker, R-Kirksville
Rep. Nate Walker, R-Kirksville

Walker said he’d make his final decision as he continued to get input, but that he was “open” to either argument, and wasn’t going to override the veto unless he was “absolutely sure it was the right thing to do.”

Whether funds can be fully restored to all education programs on the chopping block was not clear, as the budgets for the school districts affected are currently being rewritten.

“This is a down payment on a reckless cut to our revenue,” Nixon told reporters last week. “If this becomes law, I’m not going to wait around to see these budgets impacted, we’re going to make very difficult restrictions now to prepare because that is how you govern responsibly, not by slashing billions of dollars from state revenue with no regard for the impact.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said they had an “informal” conversation with the governor’s office prior to the  announcement of the restrictions. Other departmental programs on the chopping block include: Scholars and Fine Arts Academy, Regional Professional Development, Early Grade Literacy Program and the Bright Futures Program. All totaled, approximately $180 million will be cut from K-12 and Higher Education funding, should the legislature override Nixon’s veto.

Both parties have accused the other of playing political games with the states budget. Nixon called HB 253 a “reckless experiment” and a “dangerous policy” that could wound the state financially for “decades.”

House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said last week that Nixon’s budget freeze was a “politically motivated stunt” and a “farce.” His fellow Republican members, several of whom issued statements about the budget battle, chided Nixon for “playing games” with Missouri families.

Education reform advocate and state director of the Children’s Education Reform Council, Katie Casas, told The Missouri Times that both parties were making a mistake by holding funds for education hostage. Casas, who said her organization has no official position on HB 253, called the budget freeze “irresponsible.”

“The members of the Missouri legislature and the Governor’s office are supposed to be grownups,” Casas said. “They should be able to work out a disagreement without playing a game of chicken with the state budget.”

Casas said she didn’t think either party was fully to blame for the standoff.

“I’ll tell you who isn’t responsible for this, and who shouldn’t be punished for it — Missouri’s children,” Casas said.