Kansas City Public School bus driver Fonzi Banks boards his rolling hotspot bus after his first stop of the morning in September 2020 at Hale Cook Elementary. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

Update (May 4, 2022): The joint committee responsible for finalizing Missouri’s 2023 budget passed both proposals.

With just weeks to go until the Missouri legislature must approve the state’s budget, the outcome looks brighter for teachers and school districts. A joint committee of House and Senate members took another step toward finalizing the Fiscal Year 2023 budget on Wednesday, after approving proposals to increase starting teacher salaries to $38,000, as recommended by Gov. Mike Parson.

Senators also added $214 million more than the House had recommended for the state’s school transportation fund. That increase is seen as a win for districts around Kansas City that have highlighted transportation costs as problem areas in their budgets. 

Teacher groups and others also expressed optimism when the House voted to fund the state’s career ladder program, which would reestablish a salary supplement program for teachers. 

Education funding has been a source of contention this session. Thanks to federal funds, the state is flush with cash. But while school districts and champions for mental health and many other causes pleaded for more money, the House budget left nearly $2 billion unspent before the Senate made their budget modifications.

The budget must be finalized by Friday, May 6.

Starting teacher pay a win for rural districts

Missouri has one of the lowest starting teacher pay rates in the country. 

In his budget proposal for the coming fiscal year, Parson recommended raising the minimum starting teacher salary from $25,000 to $38,000. The House did not follow the governor’s recommendation, but Sen. Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, added the funds back into the budget. The plan will cost the state $31 million from general revenue over the next year, and school districts will provide 30% of the total cost. 

Most districts in the metro have already met the $38,000 baseline salary mark, but the Senate’s budget change will give an assist to rural districts as they struggle to recruit and retain staff. 

Kenny Southwick, executive director of the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City, told The Beacon he was hoping to see more funding go toward the state’s education programs in general.

“On one hand, it’s not going to help us very much. But on the other hand, I get that anything is better than nothing,” he said.

Southwick said he was concerned that a raise in pay for beginning teachers would be viewed as a sweeping solution when it is only a small step.  

“This really creates a mark where somebody can check a box and say, ‘We’ve raised starting teacher pay,’” he said. “And it will, in fact, have done that, but there’s a lot of other issues that we’ve got related to teacher retention and recruitment and just general pay for education, for educators. And there’s nothing here that addresses that.” 

According to the National Education Association, Missouri ranks 47th in average teacher pay, at $51,557. It is currently 50th in the nation for starting teacher salary, with an average of $33,234.  The state ranks 46th when it comes to funding per student, spending an average of $10,481 per student. 

Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, a former educator and Democrat representing Kansas City, pushed for the House to fund the state’s career ladder program, which can supplement teacher salaries by up to $5,000 depending on their stage. 

“Ultimately we needed to do something to reach not just our teachers in small rural districts, but really across the spectrum, our urban districts, suburban districts as well,” Nurrenbern said earlier this month. “That’s a good program and, honestly, it simply gives teachers some compensation for things that, quite frankly, they are already doing outside of the school day. And now they have some compensation for it.” 

The program has not been funded since 2010, Nurrenbern said. The addition, if approved by the full legislature, will cost the state nearly $37.5 million. 

A proposal to fully fund state’s school transportation costs 

The Senate also added more than $214 million to the proposed education budget bill to fully fund the state’s transportation reimbursement program. 

In Missouri, districts are supposed to be reimbursed by the state for transportation costs up to 75%.  But the last time the state actually paid its full share was in 1991, the deputy commissioner of education told the Missouri Independent. 

The House originally set aside nearly $114 million for the program. The Senate bumped that number to $328 million. 

Southwick pointed to difficult budgets in the past, and said lawmakers cut the funding for transportation reimbursement over time, creating a burden for school districts.

 “Your transportation didn’t go away,” he said. “It costs more and more and the bus drivers cost more, but your reimbursement was less.” 

Harrisonville School District Superintendent Paul Mensching said he hopes the transportation funding remains in the education budget until it gets to the governor’s desk. He agreed with Southwick that transportation funding is often seen as “low-hanging fruit” that can be cut from tight budgets. 

Meanwhile, Harrisonville is seeing its busing costs increase, Mensching said.

“We went to bid this year, and our initial renewal offer from our existing vendor was a 20% increase for next year,” Mensching said.

That higher bid does not mean the district will benefit from new buses or other transportation improvements. Mensching described it as “just a 20% off-the-top increase” caused by rising fuel prices and other inflationary costs. 

The proposed transportation funding in the Senate education budget would help districts absorb inflation and break even on busing costs, Mensching said. In recent years, his district has had to make difficult decisions about cutting back in other areas to pay for transportation.

“Transportation funding is something that we, as a group of superintendents, have asked for for a long time and so I’m just extremely grateful that that’s put back in,” Mensching said. “It’ll enable us to continue with services that we may not have been able to do.” 

While optimistic, Mensching said he was watching the budget process carefully

“It can be removed and so I hope that it stays in throughout the process and gets approved,” he said. I’m very very hopeful that that happens.” 

Independence School District Superintendent Dr. Dale Herl told The Beacon that he is thankful that the Senate is fully funding transportation in the education plan and emphasized the importance of communicating with lawmakers in Jefferson City about a district’s needs. He also pointed to the state’s record budget and the initial surplus of $2 billion in the House. 

“I’ve talked to them for many years about the transportation formula and luckily the state coffers are such that there’s so much surplus of dollars coming in that the money is there to do this,” Herl said. 

At the same time he is worried, given the state’s history with cutting transportation funding. 

“I am not confident at all,” he added. “The legislature likes to tout that they’re fully funding the formula, when the first place that they go to remove funds from has historically always been the transportation formula. But we’ve got to start somewhere, and getting it fully funded now is a great place to start.” 

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MEG CUNNINGHAM is The Beacon’s Missouri Statehouse reporter. Previously, Meg worked as a national politics reporter for ABC News in Washington, D.C., where she covered campaigns and elections. Meg is...