Sunday, December 11, 2005

Globe a little late on school reserves story

Regular readers of The Turner Report who saw today's Joplin Globe report on the amount of money schools hold in reserve when it could be going to teachers and into classrooms probably felt a sense of deja vu.
The same information ran in this blog on March 25, about eight and a half months ago. My entry was based on information from MSTA's monthly magazine. Veteran Globe reporter Andy Ostmeyer did an excellent job with the stories that I read on the Globe's internet site, and there may be more in the newspaper.
The story has become timely again with Governot Matt Blunt's proposal to require 65 percent of school districts' money go into classroom education. MSTA opposes that proposal and notes that many school districts already have the money, but are hoarding it.
This is a portion of what I wrote on March 25:

As state legislators struggle to fix the foundation formula under which Missouri public schools are funded, one problem has not been mentioned.
Many of the schools whose officials are suing the state claiming the funding system is inadequate are not spending the money they are getting. Missouri State Teachers Association's "School and Community" magazine's March edition begins an article called "The Hoarding Mentality" by saying, "More than half of Missouri school districts are accumulating excess reserves."
Schools can be penalized by the state for having an end balance of less than three percent, but "more than 20 percent isn't playing fair with students, teachers, and taxpayers," the article said. The article noted that it is wise for districts to hold some money aside for "avoiding financial stress," "gaining interest revenue," "avoiding interest costs for capital projects," and "covering unexpected costs and revenue shortfalls."
The MSTA released a list of school districts with ending fund balances of more than 20 percent and the list included most of the districts in the Turner Report area. Some districts, such as Joplin and Carl Junction, were only slightly above the 20 percent and had been below it for the past three years. Others, such as Carthage, Jasper, Lamar, and Liberal, were below the 20 percent, with Lamar getting dangerously close to the three percent threshold during 2002-2003.
McDonald County, which has been used as the poster child for funding inequity had an ending fund balance of 37.75 percent, while Sarcoxie had 33.8 percent, 34.45 percent, and 45.19 percent over the past three years.
Diamond stayed within the less than 20 percent, but comfortably more than 10 percent ending fund balance while the late Dr. Greg Smith was superintendent, but began hoarding money during the reign of superintendent Mark Mayo.
MSTA's figures show the school with an ending fund balance of 27.3 percent in 2003-2004 and 22.2 percent during the 2002-2003 school year. I found the 22.2 percent ending fund balance for 2002-2003 particularly enlightening since that was the year Mayo suddenly decided in June that two teachers had to be cut to save $66,000, even though the MSTA figures indicate Diamond had an ending fund balance of $1,115,000. (I should mention in the spirit of complete disclosure that both of the teachers whose positions were eliminated already had signed contracts for the next year and I was one of them. I should also mention that the decision turned out to be the best thing that could have happened for me.)
During that time, Mayo and the Board of Education eliminated the vocal music program, the middle school reading program, all full-time counselors except the high school position, increased classroom numbers, began charging fees to participate in athletics and forced the Booster Club to cover the cost of the wrestling program.
You would think the district was on the edge of financial catastrophe. But according to the MSTA figures, the Diamond R-4 School District had an ending fund balance of $1,239.399 in 2003-2004.

In that blog entry, I used my personal experiences and knowledge of the Diamond R-4 School District. Not one person has stepped forward to challenge those numbers and today's Globe indicates that other school district officials are conceding that MSTA's figures are accurate.
On a slightly-related topic, it still amazes me that the Globe was willing a few short years ago to devote considerable space to a fight between two mothers (including a Diamond R-4 Board of Education member) at a youth wrestling match (blowing it far out of proportion at a time when the school was trying to pass the bond issue for the new high school), but is willing to give the present superintendent a free pass as he helped increase the district's fund balance by running off one experienced teacher after another and eliminated valuable programs at a time when the district had the money to keep those programs going.

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