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Placeholder, schools and money

One way to handle an employee who asks for a raise is to give the next-best thing: a fancy title.

Voila, an animal control officer is now a canine relocation specialist and a marketing director becomes the wizard of light-bulb moments. It isn’t better for your paycheck, but it is a good conversation starter at cocktail parties.

School superintendents are still superintendents, but a report from the Missouri state auditor illustrates another way that clever use of language doesn’t always pay the bills. Elected officials love to say that Missouri is fully funding its foundation formula, which is the complex mechanism used to determine state aid to public education.

“Once again the legislature has fully funded the K-12 School Foundation Formula,” one state representative said in a newsletter at the end of the 2021 session.

There’s no question the state provides enormous support to K-through-12 public education, including $3.5 billion in aid to schools in the fiscal year 2020. Education accounts for 20% of the state budget, but a fully funded foundation formula might be more in the eye of the beholder.

State Auditor Nicole Galloway said Missouri ranks near the bottom of U.S. states for the portion of school funding that comes from state sources. In Missouri, state aid accounts for about 32% of funding for K-through-12 education, meaning local taxpayers have to make up much of the rest.

That report found that 68% of school districts increased their reliance on local funding from 2006 to 2016. Information on the St. Joseph School District website shows that state funding accounts for about 35% of its revenue, with local taxes making up about 48% of its budget.

Galloway said the foundation formula was not fully funded for five years from 2010 to 2020, but she suggests that the legislative fix for this was more in line with an elaborate title than an actual pay raise. A state law reinstated a 5% cap on operating expenditures for the purpose of calculating the State Adequacy Target, or SAT, a key measure that determines the per-student allocation of state funding.

The state started hitting its SAT targets in 2018, allowing lawmakers to say that the formula is fully funded. This might be a hollow claim because the 5% cap creates an easier target and doesn’t reflect state funding that’s keeping up with inflation at the local level. The per-student SAT went from $6,117 to $6,375 from 2011 to 2020.

Most local school officials say it will take more than $6,300 to educate one student. That means local districts, and definitely, local taxpayers, might not share the enthusiasm of elected officials who exclaim that the foundation formula is fully funded.

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