Funding cuts deepen for area districts

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Local school districts have been forced to review their budgets this week after the Missouri General Assembly cut another $43 million from the state budget for schools in a supplemental funding bill it passed last week.

State lawmakers' recent decision has placed on extra burden on many school districts in the southwest Missouri area, because legislators opted to exclude 152 "hold harmless" districts from the cuts.

This action means the state's remaining 372 public school districts must bear the brunt of the $43 million reduction in funding. The funding shortfall will be taken out of the districts' 2009-10 operating budgets.

Two other options that were being considered by state lawmakers were to trim the budget by implementing a 2 percent across-the-board reduction for all school districts or invoking a $65-per-student cut for all school districts.

Local school superintendents, including Cassville's Jim Orrell, Purdy's Jerry Lingo and Monett's Dr. John Jungmann, all agree that the two options not pursued by state legislators would have been the fairest choices.

"The option they chose affects Cassville a lot greater than the other two options would have," said Orrell. "It's a pretty hard hit for us."

A simulation done by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spelled out what the action meant to each affected district.

The Cassville R-IV School District will have to trim $250,000 to $260,000 for this school year's remaining budget. Purdy is facing a total reduction of $104,690 for the year, and Monett's funding cut totals around $347,000.

Orrell said the district will absorb the increased funding cuts through its reserve.

"At this point there's nothing we can cut to reduce expenditures," said Orrell. "Our reserves are such that we'll just draw out of our reserves to meet our obligations for the remainder of the year. Luckily we have the reserves available to withstand a reduction in funding of this magnitude."

Purdy is also in pretty good shape financially, according to Lingo.

"We started planning for this a year ago," said Lingo. "We had teachers retire whom we did not replace. Others took up the slack for them. We got a head start on it in that regard."

Though action by lawmakers was expected, the choice to exempt some districts from the funding cuts has spurred leaders in affected districts to action.

Timing of the vote by legislators was also provocative. Monett Superintendent Dr. John Jungmann said a group of legislators had scheduled one final effort to urge a more equitable solution for last Wednesday morning. The vote came on Tuesday night.

"We were 12 hours too late," Jungmann said.

The supplemental funding bill does not address other issues facing school districts, including summer school and Career Ladder. Other legislation is still pending to resolve those questions, but until official action is taken on next year's budget on the state level, it is difficult for area district to plan ahead for next year's budget.

Orrell said some tough decisions would most likely have to be made in the weeks to come.

"We'll have to tighten our expenditures for next year to make up for the revenue lost this year," Orrell said. "Right now we're going to have to see what the legislature approves for next year's funding to decide exactly what we're going to do."

Lingo characterized the approved reduction as having "really cut a hole in our budget." He expects next year's numbers will not become clear until May 7, making planning for the coming school year extremely difficult.

A group of 70 southwest Missouri school superintendents have been communicating and initiated a campaign urging Governor Jay Nixon to veto the current supplemental budget. A significant number of calls by school leaders were made to state representatives and senators last week. A delegation of school officials had an appointment to meet with Nixon on Wednesday morning to press their position.

"The important thing is these cuts affect kids and services," Dr. Jungmann said. "Our kids are worth fighting for. They're worth the same amount of effort as those in the St. Louis and Kansas City districts. It's not a fair way to share the shortfall."

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