If you want to know what happens to public education when your population decreases and your tax base shrinks, just look to St. Louis. Officials there announced this week that 16 public schools will be closed this school year to cut costs in the cash-strapped district. Trying to improve on a $90 million cash shortfall, the district hopes to save $15 million by closing the schools and another $14 million by selling vacant school facilities.
In the past 35 years, St. Louis has lost 65 percent of its school enrollment. At the same time the district has closed only 35 percent of the schools. That alone has boosted the cost of running the district so it was past time to act. A consulting firm was hired to analyze the district and the school closings are their first recommendation.
The problems in St. Louis mirror similar urban school districts. It happens this way - large segments of the popular flee the urban centers for an improved life in the suburbs. That leaves those remaining in the cities primarily among the lower income ranks. The property values diminish and thus, the tax base erodes. Combine that with sloppy management and you wake up one day and your district is $90 million in the red.
It's easy to try and ignore the problems in St. Louis because it's happening there and not here. But that is a very wrong assessment. The day will come - and it may come soon - when the state is forced to bail out the St. Louis district and that will come from your tax dollars. So instead of your taxes going to some statewide need, they will surely be funneled to St. Louis schools.
The step of closing schools is a drastic but important first step. Like governments at all levels, the St. Louis schools must learn to live within their means. That will translate into additional cuts until they reach the point where the parents demand change. And when that occurs, look for a state solution using your tax dollars.
We sympathize with the students in St. Louis. Yet at the same time, we fear the impending drain on the state budget which is already in dismal shape. Look for a collision down the road. And it won't be pretty.