Letter From Langdon: What’s at the Root of a ‘Stimulus’ for Rural Schools

At schools in Kansas City, I saw indoor pools, multi-lingual classes and even a fencing coach from Russia.

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The federal stimulus isn’t trickling down to rural schools in Missouri where state and local tax dollars still fund the majority of school operations. Over the hill from Langdon, in Rock Port, our small school is seeking local stimulus of its own in order to head off job cuts.

 Today, citizens in Rock Port will decide whether to increase our school tax levy for a period of 5 years. If we fail to ratify the increase, the school district will be forced to increase class sizes, lay off teachers, reduce extra curricular activities, and cut some courses completely. A similar vote is taking place in the nearby St. Joseph School District. The school board there describes the vote as a “Vision for the Future.” 

Somebody around here needs a vision, that’s for sure. In November of 2008, Missouri voters approved a ballot proposition that eliminated gambling loss limits in return for an additional 1% tax on casino earnings. When the first $112 million worth of revenue arrived, the Missouri General Assembly promptly responded by cutting a like amount of school funding from general revenue.

We’re getting nowhere fast.

Funding problems for rural schools in Missouri go back a long way, to a time when a federal judge forced the state to spend more money to integrate public schools in Kansas City and St Louis. Rather than add money to the overall budget, state legislators simply took money away from small town Missouri and gave it to the cities.

In the ’90s, I toured several magnet schools in Kansas City with other rural school board members from Northwest Missouri. We saw indoor swimming pools, multi-lingual classes, and even met a Russian fencing coach.

Rock Port is in the far northwest corner of Missouri.

Here around Langdon, the only fencing we know about is what keeps the cows on the back 40.

Eventually, state funded magnet schools ran their course, but it’s been an uphill battle for education in some parts of our state. Now, thanks to funding formulas that don’t serve all schools equally, rising energy costs, and competition for good teachers, we have a shortfall of operating money in our local school.

The Rock Port School Board has been trying for years to pass a bond that would allow modernization of the school and replacement of a one hundred year old building. It would also help to replenish our schools capital improvement fund. Currently, money for long-term improvements has to come from operating funds. If school districts like ours don’t hold back enough to pay for repairs and upgrades, they’re penalized.

School bonds in Missouri must be approved by a four-sevenths majority (or 57%). Some voters here don’t like the idea of new buildings or debt. Every time the bond has been proposed over the last 15 years it has failed even though it would have been good for our school.

Today, with state support near all time lows and costs of education rising, and operating outlays propelled higher by unfunded mandates like “No Child Left Behind,” the school board is asking voters to fund basic operations without cutting back on programs and personnel. Superintendent Alan Kerr said that adequate funding provides a chance for Rock Port students to be successful. Even with the levy increase, Rock Port would still rank in the bottom third among Northwest Missouri school districts for how much we spend on services. But low costs don’t translate to substandard education, because Rock Port students continue to exceed state averages in attending college and technical schools. Overall test scores are higher, too.

In 1940, photographer Russell Lee found children in Pie Town, New Mexico, going to school in a Farm Bureau building.

In fact, many Rock Port students graduate from high school and are able to enroll at a sophomore level in college. That’s because we have experienced teachers accredited to teach at the college level. Our rural high school students actually earn college credits from their classes.

For communities like Rock Port, achievement is measured by how many high school graduates go on to further their education. Success rates of our students show in their achievements. 

You might say we rely on strong job export markets in the cities in order for our kids to be successful. For lack of a better alternative, our next generation lives and works in the same places we compete with for funding.

Sometimes it seems like the big towns win either way.

Rock Port isn’t alone. Rural schools in Missouri and all over America are fighting the same battles to retain control of the type and quality of education their children will receive. While some may see the issue in simple terms of dollars and cents, my own sense is that our tax base and the revenue it produces will belong to government big or small whether we support our local schools or not. Small schools and school boards represent local control and the ability to offer our children opportunity. They are at the very root both of self-government and democracy itself.

Here around Langdon, those roots run deep.

Editor’s Note: The people of Langdon voted 595 to 322 Tuesday to increase the tax rate for their local schools.

 

Topics: Education
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