A Tale Of Two School Districts

It's just before noon in Mokane, Mo., and pianist Todd Becker is busy composing an orchestral score in South Callaway County High School's state-of-the-art band room. Sitting behind a synthesizer, Becker glides his fingers across the keys while each sound is recorded into a Macintosh computer. "Some kids take the facilities at this school for granted," says Becker, age 18, who will attend the University of Missouri at Columbia this fall on a music scholarship. "Me? I've always taken full advantage of what this school has to offer."

Four miles across the Missouri River in the Osage County School District, Shella Keilholz, an aspiring engineer, is sitting in one of the unairconditioned classrooms at Fatima High School. The 18-year-old Keilholz doesn't have the luxury of learning on high-tech gizmos. On this day, her physics teacher is explaining the laws of motion by rolling plastic balls down a toy racetrack. "We might not have the sophisticated equipment that South Callaway has, but our teachers do a pretty good job with what they have," she says.

For years, the neighboring counties of South Callaway and Osage were much the same. Tucked quietly amid the rolling farmland and dusty back roads of central Missouri, the two poor communities struggled to hold on to their farms, factories, and schools, as residents migrated to big cities for higher-paying industrial jobs. But in 1979, South Callaway's fortunes changed.

Union Electric Co., based in St. Louis, began building a nuclear power plant in the county, creating a windfall of local property taxes with which to fund its ailing school district. Almost overnight, the district's annual funding shot from $240,000 to $3.2 million. Osage's has remained flat at just above $800,000.

Today, South Callaway County High School, a sprawling college-like facility, is more than just a gleaming testament to the advantages of a rich property-tax base. During a time of growing litigation over inequities in America's public school funding, the school provides a glimpse into the possibilities--and limitations--of educational spending. South Callaway and its sibling district, Osage, provide a unique laboratory in examining just how much impact funding disparities have on achievement. The districts also show the influence on education of things money can't buy: family, religion, and community support.

Few issues strike a more sensitive chord among educators than the role of money in education. From Alaska to Louisiana, debates over how to fund public schools are raging. Missouri is no exception. After months of fiery discussion, state lawmakers recently passed a $315 million tax increase to finance a new school-aid formula. The bill follows a court ruling declaring the state's school-financing system unconstitutional because of its failure to provide an "equal opportunity" for each child.

Critics of the law argue that redistributing funds will do little to improve schools. Other socioeconomic factors such as family wealth, parental educational level, and household stability are the ultimate factors driving a school district's success, says John Alspaugh, an education professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia. "Money cannot buy student achievement," he says.

It hasn't in South Callaway. Over the past decade, the district has plowed $15 million into its one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school for everything from a $1 million agriculture center to a state-of-the-art theater. But such spending has yet to yield the scholastic gains officials had envisioned.

Even more, South Callaway can't seem to pull itself above poorer Osage, which has one high school and three elementary schools, on such benchmarks as standardized test scores (table, page 63). The most recent American College Test scores show that Osage's Fatima High School averaged 20.9, compared with South Callaway High's 20.5. While both districts are below the state average of 21.0, South Callaway is slightly below the national average of 20.6.

Test scores are a sore topic on both sides of the Missouri River. South Callaway officials downplay standardized tests as an incomplete barometer of their district's performance. Says Linda Hall, school board president: "What's important is that we're producing well-rounded, free-thinking individuals." Osage Superintendent Rex Miller, conversely, worries that his district's test scores might imperil his chances of securing badly needed funding. Before joining Osage, Miller spent three years as South Callaway's superintendent. He resigned in July, 1991, because of conflicts with the board. "Our scores would be even higher if we had the money South Callaway has," Miller says.

NO-SHOW PARENTS. Maybe so. But it's also clear that school funding plays a smaller role in the districts' academic performance than either cares to admit. South Callaway has only recently begun to take a hard look at its curriculum with an eye toward boosting performance. Instead, the district has focused mostly on bricks and fancy computers. And community-oriented ideas advanced by the UE families often clash with South Callaway's traditions. Ask Anita Stuckey, president of the Parent Teacher Organization, who relocated to South Callaway with her husband, a UE environmental technician. Stuckey says her recent effort to organize a book fair was nearly derailed by natives bent on buying books the old way: through mail-order catalogs. Book fairs, many argued, cost too much and required too much parental involvement.

In South Callaway, parent participation is a real problem. The district has 320 elementary school children, but only about 20 parents attend the PTO's monthly meetings. Stuckey says that parents associated with the UE plant often wind up carrying most PTO activities, and there's resentment about that.

Osage, in contrast, offsets its scant resources by sharing the burden with church, family, and civic groups. For years, Osage's Parent Teacher Organization has hawked homemade pizzas to pay for everything from crayons to computers. Says Jim Friedebach, director of assessment for the Missouri Education Dept.: "When you have a community with very high expectations for its kids, that has a powerful influence."

And, unlike South Callaway students who begin school in public schools, most Osage students spend their early years attending one of five Catholic elementary schools, where teachers stress religion and a strong work ethic. "The students here know their limits and they know what's expected of them," says Beatrice Prenger, a third-grade teacher at St. Joseph's elementary school.

South Callaway and Osage, both traditional farming communities, have each been hit hard by industrialization in nearby cities. South Callaway, though, has been affected more visibly. A community of 2,676 residents, nearly 25% of whom never completed high school, South Callaway's heyday spanned the early 1900s to mid-1950s, when farming and railroading spurred a bustling downtown. But by the late 1950s, industries had begun fleeing to St. Louis and Chicago. South Callaway's cultural fabric--civic organizations, watering holes, and social groups--began to disappear.

FLIGHT OF BUSINESS. Today, despite a median household income of $33,752, or about $4,000 more than Osage, South Callaway's business district is a skeleton. Many buildings have been torn down, leaving a few shops, a bar, and a Methodist church in between. South Callaway residents still rely mainly on farming for income, while some commute to the nearby state capital of Jefferson City to work clerical jobs. But a once-thriving construction business disappeared with the completion of the UE plant, and the unemployment rate now hovers near 6%, compared with 1.2% in Osage. Says City Clerk Dee Pfeiffer: "We don't have much building around here any more."

Businesses have fled Osage, too, but a core manufacturing base has kept unemployment low. A strong sense of community also remains, nurtured by its more tight-knit, homogeneous population. Most Osage residents are descendants of four German families who, along with a German missionary, settled the area early in the last century. The Catholic church remains strong.

If the church bonds Osage, the high school has bonded South Callaway. When UE approached it about building the plant, residents jumped at the chance, despite the nuisance of living with a nuclear-emergency test alarm that beeps daily in their homes.

Because of the plant, South Callaway boosted annual spending per student from about $1,100 to $5,854. That's nearly twice as much as Osage's $3,133. It also took its students out of trailers and put them in new buildings. And while some Fatima High kids read from 15-year-old textbooks and jockey for time on the school's 15 computers, South Callaway kids enjoy the latest edition textbooks and 100 laptops they can sign out. The school even has an industrial-technology class, where students use computers to design the likes of solar-powered vehicles. Boasts South Callaway Superintendent Paul Skeans: "We no longer teach wood shop. We teach robotics."

Life for teachers in South Callaway has improved, too. Class size in the district averages a comfortable 17 students, compared with Osage's more unwieldy 27. South Callaway teachers also earn about $6,000 more annually and enjoy full health benefits, plus tuition reimbursement. Each month, Osage teachers fork over an extra $80 for their health insurance.

Such financial pressures are taking a toll. With Osage having to fight harder each year to maintain its academic standards, teachers are becoming frustrated. Often, they're forced to dig into their own pockets to buy materials. When they spend the district's money, they risk being penalized. Fatima's high school principal has put off buying computers for two years because doing so would mean cutting down on the number of teachers.

CHANGES AHEAD. Osage special education teacher Shelly Woodson, for one, has had enough. Since joining Osage in 1989, she has had to buy supplies with her paycheck, and lately she has been worried about job security. And Osage teachers haven't had a pay raise in three years. But in September, Woodson won't have those problems. She will be teaching special ed in South Callaway.

Other changes lie ahead. With Missouri's new school-financing package, Osage expects to get another $400,000 per year by 1997. That will require the district to pass a local tax increase of $100,000. But that money won't begin to reverse decades of decline. "It's not enough," says Superintendent Miller.

South Callaway, even with a $17 million nest egg, complains that it, too, has financial problems that need addressing. The biggest one: Nuclear plants are temporary. UE recently told the district that it would begin depreciating the plant by 4% a year--which adds up to about $120 million in lost tax revenues over the next 15 years. In 30 years, the plant will close, UE has said. About 92% of South Callaway's school funding comes from UE. Because UE

has announced no plans to build another plant, the district may have to raise taxes and increase its reliance on state funds. The school board, anticipating tougher times, last year hired Superintendent Skeans, a fiscal conservative with experience in poor districts. His mandate: making better use of the district's resources, and boosting student achievement. So far, he has initiated a year-long study of the district's curriculum, linked graduate education to teachers' pay, and is mulling a special program for gifted kids.

For now, money is still the least of South Callaway's problems. Yet fights over how to spend it continue to haunt the district. Often, the brawls focus on issues that have little to do with improving the schools. The latest squabble: how to spend donations raised through Olympic Day athletic events. Hosted by elementary school students, Olympic Day raised $3,300 last year. But some parents are still fuming because $2,000 went to high school seniors instead of elementary kids. Anita Stuckey, PTO president, says she's trying to ease tensions this fall by combining the annual membership drive with a pot-luck dinner or dessert party. "Around here, there'll always be some haggling over money," Stuckey says. "But maybe this will relax parents and encourage them to get more involved." That's only part of the equation. The district must also make its technology an integral part of the curriculum. Teachers, too, should be retrained to adapt old methods to the new equipment. And everybody in the district should be held to higher standards. If not, South Callaway students will only go as far as new books and shiny buildings can take them.

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