February 13, 2016

House-Senate lawmakers finalize compromise transfer proposal

A House and Senate conference committee has finished its work hammering out a proposed fix to the student transfer law that threatens to bankrupt some Missouri schools.

The proposal would let students in failing schools in unaccredited districts first transfer to better performing schools within that district. If no room is available in those schools, they could transfer to neighboring districts or charter schools. Students in schools that don’t achieve accreditation for three years could also transfer to nonreligious private schools, with local tax dollars covering tuition. That could happen earlier if approved by a public vote.

See our earlier story on the latest changes to the ‘private option’

Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal (D-University City) says the legislation leaves some children out.

“When we decided to only allow children who are in unaccredited buildings in unaccredited districts [transfer,] I think that’s limiting children,” she says. “There are kids who are in unaccredited buildings in accredited districts who are totally ignored in this bill as of now.”

The legislation does not cover transportation costs for students traveling to new schools. Representative Rick Stream (R-Kirkwood) says that could be a barrier for some parents wanting to get their children into better schools immediately, which lawmakers have said is a goal. He would like to have seen transportation covered in the bill, but says it was removed in compromise with the Senate.

“It does certainly limit their options to transfer out of the district to another public school district,” says Stream. “But, we do have in there now the charter options and the private school option in their district, and if our goal is to try to keep students in the district but in a better educational environment, those two options are now there.”

Stream considers whether the updated bill can pass the House.

“We had 91 votes to start with. We may have gained a few from St. Charles. We may have lost a few from the rural areas on the private option vote being constrained, so we’ll see,” says Stream.

The conference committee chairman, Senator David Pearce (R-Warrensburg) says he’s confident as the legislation goes back to both chambers to consider.

“Right now a lot of people aren’t pleased with it,” says Pearce, “so that means we’ve got a pretty good compromise.

Stream doesn’t think the House could muster enough votes to override Governor Jay Nixon (D) if he decides to veto the bill. Nixon has said he can not support anything that involves tax dollars going to private schools.

Lawmakers further tweak ‘private option’ in student transfer proposal

House and Senate lawmakers have made more changes to language in a proposed fix to Missouri’s student transfer law that would allow public tax dollars to go to nonreligious private schools.

A conference committee of legislators from both chambers voted to allow local tax dollars from public schools that are unaccredited for three years pay for their students to nearby private, nonsectarian schools. Such transfers could only happen if there are no openings in accredited schools in the same district.  Districts could vote to allow such use of local tax dollars before the three years are up.

Committee Chairman David Pearce (R-Warrensburg) says the provision is limited to certain urban areas of Missouri.

“This is not every district across the state. It’s very limited, in fact this is in St. Louis City, St. Louis County and Jackson County,” says Pearce. “The thought was these districts aren’t performing … and with three years, regardless of whether [the district holds] an election or not, to have the private, nonsectarian option, then [students] will have that option.”

Legislators have made several attempts to refine the so-called “private option.”  Supporters say in some unaccredited school districts, allowing transfers to private schools would offer the only option for some students that wouldn’t require them to travel long distances each day to school.  Several senators believe the legislation would not pass out of the Senate without a private school provision.

Opponents say the entire bill is merely an attempt to divert public tax dollars to private schools and call it a step toward vouchers.  Governor Jay Nixon (D) has said he can not support legislation that includes a private school provision.

The committee met for seven hours Monday. It continues its hearing Tuesday morning and Pearce hopes to complete its work today so that both chambers can consider a transfer fix before the close of the session on Friday.

Senate Committee presents laundry list of state repair, maintenance needs

The Senate Interim Committee on Capital Improvement will prepare a report by the end of this year for the rest of the senate. The Office of Administration has shown it a list dating to August 6 of last year of 20,782 repair or maintenance projects that would cost the state $662,032,616.

Data provided by the Office of Administration notes that with additional costs in addressing those needs the total would rise to between $700- and $800 million.

Committee Chairman Sen. David Pearce (R-Warrensburg) says the numbers don’t surprise him.

“Serving on the appropriations committee I’ve seen the huge need that’s out there, but it’s a great need,” he said. “We really haven’t had a capital improvement bill since 2001 and so some of these projects have just been put off and put off and put off, and so as elected officials it’s up to us to take a look at what these long-term needs are and make some tough decisions.”

The committee was told that for the last decade or more, the amounts appropriated for capital improvements by the legislature have been withheld by governors. This year, that included money for remediation at the State Capitol, the construction of a new Department of Transportation building at the site of the old Missouri State Penitentiary and for planning a new State Mental Hospital at Fulton, among other items in supplemental budget bill HB 19.

Pearce says withholds like that are why the list of needs has grown so long.

“It never gets cheaper to actually build buildings, and so it’s kind of going in not a very organized manner and so if we can do better than that I think that’d be better,” Pearce said. “Probably I would think most of this money that’s being withheld will be released but until then you can’t actually spend it.”

Pearce says the Committee’s goal in meeting is to prepare a report that can be used by legislators in preparing bills and the budget. First, he says, it will meet at least three more times including in September when lawmakers are in Jefferson City for the veto session. It is then that it will visit what he sees as the top capital need in the state, that mental hospital in Fulton.

“That is an antiquated facility. It’s bad for the patients, it’s bad for the employees and Missouri can do better and it serves the entire state, and so I would think that has to be our number one priority. This committee’s is going to take a look at that and so we’re going to tour it and try to come up with some ways to have a new state mental health hospital.”

Additional hearings will take place August 26 in St. Louis and October 9 in the Kansas City area, with one other possible hearing to be set.

The Committee also spent about 30 minutes in the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City. The prison closed in September, 2004 and plans to renovate the site have been at a standstill since.

Pearce says he does hope to see the historic buildings on the site saved.

“This [prison and its history] will never happen again, and so it’s very important to save what you can,” he said. “Obviously on this facility there are a lot of old buildings that it’s already been determined are not worth saving but there are some that are of tremendous historical significance that, not only here in Jefferson City but around the state, that we need to take a look at and see if they can be preserved.”

The Committee was told that a state law created the Prison Redevelopment Commission, who then created a redevelopment plan for the prison property. It was shown where, according to the plan, that Transportation Department building would be constructed if the money is released, in an area set aside for state office buildings and away from the structures considered historic.

The Office of Administration says money has been secured for the next phase of demolition on the prison site, and 9 buildings not considered historic are slated to be demolished as early as next spring.

A request to talk to Office of Administration staff about the current status of that redevelopment plan was not answered by the time this story was posted, but earlier versions of the plan are available online.

Proposal says Missouri higher education underfunded by $388 million

A proposed plan for funding the state’s colleges and universities says those institutions aren’t getting enough money. The draft says Missouri’s colleges and universities are underfunded by the state, by about $388 million dollars.

Senator David Pearce (standing, left) opens the hearing of the Joint Education Committee.

Senator David Pearce (standing, left) opens the hearing of the Joint Education Committee.

Joint Education Committee Chairman Senator David Pearce (R-Warrensburg) says that’s a gap that can’t be closed overnight.

“Our funding for higher education has not happened overnight as far as decreases to higher education, nor will increases, and so this just shows to be fully funded that’s what this committee feels [is needed], an increase of $387 million.”

With the release of the spreadsheet, the Committee now wants the state’s 13 institutions and other interested parties to comment on the draft. Its next step will be to issue its final report. The Senate has set a deadline to file legislation by the end of this month.

The formula for funding K-12 education is underfunded by about $686 million dollars. Pearce says his committee thought it was important to show Higher Education is underfunded as well.

House Speaker Tim Jones (R-Eureka) ties consideration of how that $388 million gap might be closed to the subject of expanding Medicaid eligibility.

“The more money we choose long-term to dump into Medicaid, there will be less money for higher ed and K-12 because the Governor has said let’s just take all the free money in the federal program. He has not said what we’re going to do 3, 4, 5 years out when the federal government starts retreating from that. Once we agree to that entitlement we’re going to have to find the money in our budget, and the Governor has not suggested we raise taxes, so the revenue has to come from another line item in the budget. The next biggest buckets? Education … both higher ed and K-12, other social services.”

The committee must develop a formula by the end of 2013 that can be implemented in time for fiscal year 2015 appropriations.


Work continues toward formula for higher education funding

Two legislative committees have revisited a model of what could go into a higher education funding formula that would include performance-based funding. 

A presentation that was first offered to the Joint Committee on Education last month was given to the House Budget Committee on Education and the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.  The model is based on public hearings of the Joint Committee held last year, what education policy makers had to say, study of other states’ practices and reports and recommendations from more than two decades of earlier work by task forces, committees and commissions.

The model would have the state provide 35 percent of an institution’s operating costs. 10 percent of that would be tied to performance in five criteria.

See the model proposal for higher education funding in Missouri (pdf).

Joint Committee Chairman Senator David Pearce (R-Warrensburg) says people are anxious.

“In early October I had people come to me and want a spreadsheet. They wanted to know exactly how does this affect my college, where are we, and we hadn’t even finished the hearing process. So what we’re trying to do is to get an objective view … what do you think should go into a formula on performance funding? Then when you get all those ideas … you put the spreadsheet out and see how it affects the institutions, and believe me then there will be a lot more discussion after that.”

Pearce says creation of that spreadsheet will begin next month.

Representative Genise Montecillo (D-St. Louis) says she understands wanting to reward good outcomes, but she is worried about what the formula will mean for some community colleges.

“Those institutions that are struggling in some areas … how are they going to be able to improve their performance when we’re decreasing their funds which are already at very, very low dollar amounts?”

Joint Committee Executive Director Stacy Preis says one of the recommendations is the inclusion of a stop-loss provision.

“That would avoid large, sudden shifts in funding. A stop-loss is different from what you may be familiar with as a hold harmless provision in the K-12 formula in that a stop-loss guarantees a certain percentage of current funding. Not the absolute amount of current funding but that could be 95 percent, 98 percent, something like that.”

See what institutions said in reply to the funding model presented in December.

Preis expects one of the debates in the creation of a formula will be whether that performance-based funding is a bonus on top of a base appropriation.

“Is it important to us or not, to emphasize performance. If it is, then it is and if it’s just a bonus that will be nice if we have money then it’s just a bonus that will be nice if we have the money, but nothing makes it go away faster than having it just be considered as an add-on.”

Chairman of the House Budget Committee on Education, Representative Mike Lair (R-Chillicothe) says he doesn’t know which way he’s leaning on that debate yet.

“We’ve taken mountains of testimony … it’s to the point where we need to start making those decisions and then feed in the numbers, feed in the institutions and see how it runs.”

Lair says to have the proposal ready to employ in 2015, the legislature has to be developing it now.

“Especially when you see the way that our higher institutions of learning are spread around the state, everybody becomes very parochial with them. If anything looks as if it’s going to hurt theirs, then of course it becomes a negative, and so it could take two years to get it through.”