Rural Missouri School Districts Preparing for Budget Crisis
By: Kate Scott
(Ellsinore, MO)--Missouri money problems have some Heartland schools preparing for what they call a “serious crisis.”
State lawmakers could be cutting another $340-million from K-12 funding for next year. Some area administrators say those kinds of cuts could force rural school districts to resort to drastic measures.
“Rural schools are at a disadvantage because we do rely on the state for most of our funds,” says Tim Hager, Assistant Superintendent at East Carter County R-2. With roughly 6,000 residents, and little industry, Carter County doesn't have much of a tax base to support its schools. So when the state takes away hundreds of thousands of dollars, administrators like Hager don't have much to fall back on. “We've lost $51,000 , just to cover up the state's shortfall this year,” he tells Heartland News. “Next year, we're looking at cuts around $300,000. We have to cut teachers, cut sports programs, cut assistant coaches…all kinds of different jobs across the board, just to stay within our budget for next year.”
Popular classes like industrial arts and building trades, which teach students valuable career skills, will be gone. So will band and elementary art. In fact, soon there won't be anything left to cut, but the basics. “We should be able to get through next year,” says Hager. “But there's no guarantees there'll be a school here after that.”
It’s enough to upset Carter County Presiding Commissioner Gene Oakley, who's both a former superintendent and former state legislator. He attended East Carter County R-2, along with the Late Governor Mel Carnahan. Now Oakley doesn't want to see today’s kids lose that opportunity because of the state's inability to stay within its budget. “I think it's the greatest disaster I have ever seen in the school business in Missouri,” he tells Heartland News. “Unless a change occurs, we are going to see school districts closing, or for example, a small community having an elementary school only and shipping their high school students to another community.”
Oakley says a change could come if rural school districts band together and sue the state to get the funding they need. It’s something they've done before, back in the early 1990’s, and won. Some Heartland schools are already signing on for a potential lawsuit. “I think the lawsuit, if it comes, and I think it will, would be for equity in funding and adequacy,” says Oakley. “Equity among the state’s schools doesn’t do any good if there’s no money to speak of.” Hager believes that when it comes to Missouri’s schools, there should always be enough money. “The Missouri Constitution states that once you pay the bills, schools are supposed to be the number one priority in the budget, and the state’s not living up to that,” he declares. “Children in rural schools are getting a raw deal because of where they live, and constitutionally, that’s not right.” That’s why Hager says East Carter County R-2 would support the lawsuit. “Our school board has pledged their support to that financially,” he tells Heartland News. “We feel like that's the only way rural Missouri can compete.”
Gene Oakley plans to hold a press conference at the Jefferson City Capitol Rotunda on Monday, to inform lawmakers of the problems facing rural schools. He’ll be accompanied by the attorney who would handle the potential lawsuit.
May 9th is the deadline for Missouri lawmakers to finalize their education budget cuts.