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Education Department's poll cause a stir

September 08, 2003
By: Drew Bratcher
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - On the same day Missouri lawmakers returned for a special session to raise taxes for education, the state Education Department sent a memo to school districts across the state asking for information to support the governor's claims of cuts in public schools.

In his special session call last week, Holden said that schools throughout Missouri have had to layoff teachers and raise taxes as a result of what he called "the legislature's failure to fulfill its constitutional duty to provide adequate funding."

But at his news conference announcing the special session, Holden was unable to cite specifics as to the number of teachers laid off, tax increases proposed or classes canceled.

"The governor wants more inclusive figures," the governor's chief spokesperson, Mary Still said. "We wanted it done before the special session, but were unable to get the poll out in time."

Republican leaders expressed outrage at the governor's effort to gather information to justify a special session. "The purpose of sending this out is to find some bad examples to use in order to justify throwing out more money," Republican Senate Majoity Floor Leader Michael Gibbons (R-St. Louis) said. "They're probably going to find some horrific story out there that will probably be a great rhetorical device, and I'm sure that's what they're trying to find."

House Speaker Catherine Hanaway (R-Warson Woods) said she hoped the governor would ask school superintendents what programs they would restore if witheld funds were reinstated.

"If the governor is going to release state money, he ought to have a plan," Hanaway said.

Republicans maintain that other factors besides money contribute to the condition of Missouri schools. "Obviously money is important, but things like committed parents and good teachers are just as important," Gibbons said. "And this poll doesn't take into account those factors."

The poll, sent Monday to all 524 school superintendents across the state, asks each superintendent to identify staff reductions, tax levy increases and courses reductions that have been made for the current school year.

The memo asks the superintendents to respond by the end of the day Wednesday.

"We'll see what kind of response we get. This is on very short notice," said Jim Morris, a spokesman for the Education Department.

Morris said that different educational organizations have sought to get similar figures.

"What happens is that the superintendents' group does an informal survey and comes up with a number, but some people attack that. Then the teachers groups come up with a number and some people attack that as being self-serving," Morris said. "So we are going to see if we can get a better handle now that the school year has already started."

Still, said that Holden has received his information about school cuts from first-hand accounts and conversations with superintendents.