Columbia teachers react to Parson's education funding cuts

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COLUMBIA - Gov. Mike Parson announced Monday he is withholding $131 million from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) budget in June because of a state budget shortfall related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Teachers in Columbia aren't happy. 

"I think that what it really says to our students and to our families over and over again is that education is not a priority," Kathy Steinhoff, president of the Columbia Missouri National Education Association, said.

This is not the first time Parson has cut education funding. On April 1, he withheld almost $73 million from higher education. Then on April 20, he withheld almost $23 million from K-12 education. 

Monday's cuts represent 39% of what the state was set to send to schools this month. Most of the money the state is witholding comes from the foundation formula, which DESE's website says "must be used primarily to pay teachers' salaries in the school district."

Parson said one of his priorities at the beginning of the year was to look into ways of increasing teacher pay. However, he said the pandemic changed things. 

"As difficult as these decisions are, we are experiencing an unprecedented economic downturn, which means we are having to make unprecedented adjustments to our budget," he said. 

Steinhoff said the pandemic showed exactly why now isn't the time to be cutting education funding because of the increased challenges that come with remote and socially-distanced learning.

"Our infrastructure could not support the technology needs of our students," she said. "That's going to take more money. We see that we're going to have to redesign the way education is potentially delivered. That's going to take more money."

Parson said his goal is to withhold money now so he doesn't have to make that decision once schools are back in session in the fall. 

Some of the withheld state money could be made up by money from the federal CARES act. Columbia Public Schools is set to receive $2.5 million from the act. 

The state and school districts use a July 1 through June 30 fiscal year, which means the budget will reset at the end of the month. 

Otto Fajen, the legislative director for Missouri National Education Association, said Parson told district administrators on a Tuesday morning call that he might have to withhold more money next month, too. 

"We don't even know where the bottom of it is yet," Fajen said. 

He also said these cuts will affect districts unequally because some are more reliant on state money than others. 

"For some districts, this is a serious problem and really not something that's easily handled in the midst of a crisis," he said. "Administrators have been trying to hang in there and keep people on the job, but it's gonna get tougher."

Columbia Public Schools spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark told KOMU 8 News in an email that the district will be discussing the funding cuts at a budget hearing on Wednesday.