Poor judgments make school tax a hard sell

Saturday, March 8, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:30 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Kennedy is a professor emeritus at the MU School of Journalism.

Like most of you, I’m a longtime supporter of Columbia Public Schools. All three of my kids got good educations at Blue Ridge, Oakland and Hickman. As far as I know, current students are being taught just as well.

Like most of you, I’ve never hesitated in supporting school tax increases. They have always seemed money well spent. This year is different. The 54-cent increase being proposed in the April election is going to take some selling and some explaining. Judging from what I hear around town, a lot of other fans of education feel the same way.

Decisions by the Columbia School Board in the past 12 months have raised serious questions about judgment and about the quality of the guidance board members are getting from the professionals. Recent reports in the Missourian and the Columbia Tribune have done at least as much to raise new questions as to answer old ones.

Some critics have noted the huge surpluses the district has carried (more than 20 percent of the budget for most years in the decade just ended; down sharply but still about 16 percent this year) and wondered if a big bank account is the best use of our tax money.

For me, the first seriously questionable judgment came a year ago when, without much public discussion, the board announced a site for the next high school. It was the best and only feasible site, we were told. The trouble was that it was out in the middle of nowhere, closer to Callaway County than to the center of present and projected student population.

When I drove out to see for myself, the only living creatures in the neighborhood were a covey of quail alongside the road. If you’ve kept up with the recent decline in quail numbers, you’ll know that meant no nearby development.

Anyway, after a persistent campaign by the Missourian led to a reopening of the search, we learned that there were actually multiple alternatives, nearly all of them preferable to the first choice. Eventually, but only after a former top administrator was paid thousands as a finder’s fee for the first site, a better one was picked.

Then last summer we had the board’s decision — also on the recommendation of Superintendent Phyllis Chase — to spend $10 million from its reserve account, mostly to hire 70 or so new employees. That’s a recurring expense, of course, but there sure wasn’t much early warning that the decision would inevitably mean the biggest tax increase proposal in years.

Now, as the hunt is on for $5 million to trim along with the $10 million the tax increase would yield, we learn that maybe $2 million could be saved just by doing the budget differently. Another $1 million is being spent on extra work days the teachers apparently don’t really need.

I’m counting on the newspapers to tell us before election day just how all this makes sense and why we should reward this kind of management with more tax money. I still want to support our schools, and I’m sure you do, too.

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andrew materer March 8, 2008 | 5:37 p.m.
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