SIKESTON -- An unprecedented 100-plus school districts across Missouri will ask voters to consider nearly 140 separate proposals in the upcoming April 6 election, a state education survey says.
Among those districts is Scott County Central, which is placing a $1.9 million bond issue on its ballot next month.
"It's preventative maintenance," said superintendent Jo Anne Northern. "What we're wanting to do is maintain now instead of having to add more taxes down the line. We want to keep tax dollars close to where they're at."
Currently Scott County Central debt service tax is 72 cents and is expected to be paid off in March 2005, but Northern pointed out if the district's residents do not vote to extend the issue, it will lose the funding.
However, if passed, the bond issue would aid in construction of a junior high wing with four classrooms and a physical education facility. Currently students grades seven through 12 share the same space at the high school, and the current gym doesn't have air conditioning and is deteriorating, Northern explained. The new facility could also be used for community events, she added.
In addition, the bond issue would allow the district to expand its preschool program by making a bigger room and therefore doubling the number of children it accommodates from 15 to 30.
According to a first-ever survey conducted recently by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 114 school districts will ask voters to consider 138 proposals next month. These include 71 increases in the property tax rate for school operations, 37 bond issues for capital improvements, such as Scott Central's and 30 "Proposition C waivers."
Commissioner of Education Kent King said in a news release he has never seen anything like the current situation in his 40-year career in Missouri education.
"After two years of cutbacks and withholdings in state aid, and with little prospect of improvement for next year, many school districts are faced with a stark choice: increase local revenues or cut staff and programs," King said.
While Scott County R-4 School District does not have a proposal in the upcoming election, superintendent Don Moore noted if enough large school districts' tax levies pass, it could affect the state's funding. For example, the current state funding formula rewards school districts that raise their tax rates (up to a maximum rate of 95 cents) with additional state aid.
With so many districts seeking increases, King said a significant amount of state aid could be pulled into districts that win approval of higher tax rates. This means that districts whose tax rates do not change could get less state aid per pupil than they are currently expecting to receive.
Local boards of education are required by law to establish their operating tax levies for the next school year by Sept. 1. School districts must offer contracts to teachers by April 15.
"Staffing decisions for next year will hinge on the outcome of the April 6 election for many of these districts," King said in the statement. "In addition, they will not know until May or June how much state aid the legislature will provide for next year. The impact of changes in local tax rates may not be known until September.
"School officials are really frustrated and feel like they are groping in the dark as they try to forecast their financial situation for next year," he said.
Budgeting school finance is like gazing into a very cloudy crystal ball and trying to anticipate what the state will do, agreed Sikeston R-6 Superintendent Steve Borgsmiller.
Sikeston R-6 is currently using some reserves for operational goals to manage its way through the year, Borgsmiller said. "Hopefully in a couple years, a new foundation formula will be rewritten and treat all of us with adequacy and equity," he said.
While 20 percent of the state's school districts are looking to their local voters for increased funding next month, DESE reports an unknown number of districts are still considering whether to submit tax increase proposals to their voters later this year.
"We have been studying for some period of time to go to a bond issue for renovation and new construction of our facilities," Borgsmiller said. "But a determination has not been made if we choose to do something of that nature."
Scott County R-4 last placed a $3 million bond issue on the ballot in April 2002, but it didn't pass. Moore said the district is not planning on asking voters to approve any tax levies or bond issues anytime soon.
"Right now we feel like we're doing OK," Moore said. "With the economy picking up, hopefully revenue for our schools will not be seeing a lot of cuts."