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House committee rejects foundation formula proposal

April 28, 2005
By: Chris Blank
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - The proposal to change the state's school foundation formula faced a significant setback Thursday with a House committee's vote to defeat the proposal.

"What you saw here was a rural vs. urban divide," said Committee Chairman Brian Baker, R-Belton.

The measure is one of the largest issues remaining in the final two weeks of the session and came after several days of discussion and a series of amendments that decayed support from suburban lawmakers for the bill.

Perhaps the most controversial amendment was a change to the factor used to account for salary differences. The Senate's version uses county wage data and considers up to 15 percent of the difference from the state average.

The House version would have broken the state into regions and increased state appropriations to local schools based on differences between the average wage and the state average. This would have lowered the boost to urban areas while expanding the increase further into the fringe areas around Kansas City and St. Louis.

At the insistence of rural legislators and House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, the committee reduced to 10 percent the amount of the difference accounted for.

Jetton said he supported the change because he believed suburban lawmakers could support the change and that rural Democrats would sign on to replace any defecting Republicans.

"Here's the one thing I think a lot of people have missed in the formula: it's got to be affordable," he said. "It's great for us to pass a great formula and puts money in all districts and everyone gets a bunch more and everyone's happy, but that doesn't help if you can't fund it."

The House version also voted to increase the phase-in from five years to seven years and increased from $10 million to $15 million the additional state money to be divided between districts with less than 300 students.

The effect was the reduction in cost between the Senate and House versions from about $690 million to about $660 million.

The formula sets $6,117 as the minimum spending per pupil and then adds additional money based upon demographic information as compared to the districts who receive a perfect score on the Annual Performance Review.

Although leadership indicated the bill was not dead and that they would consider several procedural maneuvers to resurrect the bill, some Democrats on the committee had concerns about the basics of the formula.

Rep. Michael Corcoran, D-St. Louis County, said the proposal is skewed because many of the comparison districts have less than 1,000 students.

Corcoran said using achievement on the No Child Left Behind Act would make the sample more representative and help work out some the remaining concerns.

Minority Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, who was in attendance for the vote, said Democratic opposition had remained united because the process had been hurried, leaving members with many concerns.

"This was a real defeat for Gov. Blunt," he said. "His foundation formula, one of the promises he made during his campaign, was opposed by members of his own party."

A spokeswoman for the governor said a special session would be called if the General Assembly fails to pass the legislation by the end of the session.

"The governor is hopeful the General Assembly will address and pass a school foundation formula before the end of the session, but he would be willing to call for a special session," spokeswoman Jessica Robinson said.

But House leaders, questioning the Democrats' desire to pass a formula, said there was plenty of time remaining in the session to resolve the dispute.

"The committee was designed to be bipartisan, that was the whole goal of us trying to accomplish this," Baker said. "Unfortunately, one side of the aisle lined up in opposition, and a few of those members would have benefited."

Rep. Ed Robb, R-Columbia, who voted for the proposal in committee, said he had anticipated the committee's vote but believed the committee would be able to pass out a proposal in time.

"We just need to get to work and get one done," he said. "We've got two weeks left. It might be the last Friday, but we have to get this done."

The measure's sponsor Senate Floor Leader Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, downplayed the importance of the committee vote. Shields, who has been working on the new formula for two years, said he believed the proposal could be saved.

"I think they let the process get away from them," he said. "They put on some amendments that made it impossible for them to pass that bill."

With all of the Republicans voting against the bill coming from St. Louis and Jackson counties or Springfield, Rep. Bob Johnson, R-Lee's Summit, said the committee's changes unfairly hurt suburban districts.

"The cost of educating students is much higher in urban areas and that has to be addressed before I'll consider changing my mind," he said.

The session ends May 13.