Missouri education department wants to rev up school transportation funding | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri education department wants to rev up school transportation funding

Sep 18, 2018

Funding for running school buses in Missouri could return to state funding goals within five years if the state education department’s request to the legislature is fulfilled.

Missouri education officials outlined a $6.3 billion budget for the 2020 fiscal year to the state Board of Education Tuesday, which asks state lawmakers for more transportation aid and per-student funding as part of a $140 million increase in its budget.

Missouri’s per-student funding model has been considered fully funded in recent years thanks to changing standards. But the same can’t be said for busing. The state is supposed to pay districts 75 percent of the cost of running those buses, but that mark hasn’t been met in three decades.

In more recent budgets, the state has averaged closer to 15 percent of districts’ busing costs, which affects sprawling rural districts the most. Some districts in the state encompass large chunks of farm or forest land, forcing buses to traverse dozens of miles every day to pick up and drop off students.

“You’ve got to get the kids to school so if we don’t have transportation funded, it’s coming out of the foundation formula or other funds meant for the classroom,” said Vic Lenz, a board member from St. Louis County. “It’s very important. We have to get this done.”

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will request enough aid to get reimbursement to 26 percent next year and 75 percent in five years, assuming the legislature goes along. That would require increases of about $39 million each year.

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Per pupil funding

The budget also includes another $77 million in per-student funding. Right now the state pays each district about $6,300 per student, based on a formula that factors in property tax values and cost of living in each district among other measures. Under state law, the per-student dollar amount is scheduled to increase to about $75 per student for 2020, according to DESE’s chief budget officer Jennifer Jordan.

“The truth is we underfund education in Missouri,” said board member Mike Jones.

Board President Charlie Shields said Gov. Mike Parson’s administration has been more welcoming to open discussions about funding shortfalls.

“Which I think is a very positive step in the right direction,” he said.

Another reason for the need for more money is a mandated increase in funding for early childhood education. Increasing that funding even more will be a point of discussion for lawmakers when they gather in January, Shields said.

Search for a new commissioner

The application window for an education commissioner in Missouri will open Wednesday.

The state board of education restarted the search 10 months after ex-Gov. Eric Greitens orchestrated the firing of Commissioner Margie Vandeven. Greitens’ recess appointees to the board tried to then rush the hiring process but it stalled out when those appointees weren’t confirmed by the state Senate and the board lacked a quorum for the first half of the year.

The commissioner serves as chief executive of DESE and to the state school board. DESE has run smoothly under interim Commissioner Roger Dorson, according to the board President Shields.

There is not exactly what I would describe as a burning platform right now,” he said.

Shields added it is “certainly an option our interim commissioner becomes our commissioner,” referring to Dorson taking on the position permanently. Vandeven was promoted from within.

The application window will close in mid-October and candidate interviews will take place the following month.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney