League of Women Voters hosts City Council and School Board forum

Thursday, March 6, 2008 | 11:45 p.m. CST; updated 4:43 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Candidates for the Columbia City Council and School Board faced off Thursday night at a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters.

About 40 community members gathered at the Columbia Public Library to ask critical questions of the candidates. Candidates for the First Ward seat on the city council discussed renewable energy, while the school board candidates addressed the budget and communication with the public. The forum also included a presentation by Chief Academic Officer Sally Beth Lyon on the school district’s proposed tax levy increase.

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First Ward candidates discuss renewable energy

One audience member asked the four candidates vying for the First Ward city council seat about the importance of renewable energy in Columbia’s future. All four candidate were in favor of renewable energy sources and agreed that Columbia’s current energy policies need to be changed in favor of investing in a sustainable city.

Karen Baxter, a licensed practical nurse and former vice president of the Ridgeway Neighborhood Association, said she was in favor of using all sources of renewable energy.

“If I could, I would have a windmill in my yard,” Baxter said, adding that she would encourage the city to invest in alternative energy sources.

Paul Sturtz, Ragtag and True/False Festival co-founder, said Columbia is taking steps toward increased reliance on renewable energy sources but there is still more to be done. Sturtz mentioned Columbia’s signing of the U.S. Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement, which requires cities to meet the Kyoto Protocol emission caps by 2012, as indicative of Columbia’s progress on this issue.

“We need to put some teeth into it and change the way we get energy,” Sturtz said. “We should make Columbia into a model city (for renewable energy reliance) that would attract people from all over the country.”

John G. Clark, a certified public accountant and former mayoral candidate, said incentives need to be implemented to help public and private property owners control energy usage. Clark said revising the city’s building codes to require increased energy efficiency will lower city utility bills. Lowered utility bills and affordable housing go hand in hand, he said.

“We need to push to make the city much more aggressive towards affordable housing,” Clark said.

Almeta Crayton, the three-term incumbent, said the city needs to help families conserve energy to lower their utility bills.

“I’d like to see someone from the energy board help citizens conserve energy,” Crayton said. “There needs to be a tax credit for landlords to insulate those houses.”

The First Ward candidates will take part in another forum this weekend. The forum, sponsored by the Central Columbia Get Out the Vote committee, will start at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Salvation Army building, 1108 W Ash St.

School board candidates debate budget, communication

The city council forum was followed by a question and answer session with the candidates for the Columbia Public School Board.

Five of the six candidates attended, answering questions on various topics, including budget concerns and communication with the public.

“Society thinks that education ought to be cheap and free and it’s not,” candidate Rosie Tippin said, responding to a question about budget cuts. “You get what you pay for.”

Current board member and candidate Tom Rose said productivity in the district is important when balancing the budget.

“We need to make sure everyone is working efficiently from the top down,” he said.

Other candidates agreed that the first priority when making budget cuts should be the children.

“The board should be careful and keep kids first in mind when they make those decisions,” said candidate Gale Hairston.

Candidate Ines Segert commented that costs have been increasing quickly.

“It would be very nice to get the accurate budget first,” Segert said. “Costs have been going up phenomenally fast.”

Communication problems between the district and the public were called into question by another resident.

The forum comes at a time when some community members have been criticizing the board for a lack of communication with the public.

“The system suffers from a lack of accountability. We can’t expect better unless we overhaul a system mired in secrecy,” Segert said.

Current board Vice President and candidate Darin Preis said he believes the board has been responsive to the voices of the community.

“I believe Columbia Public Schools is making a valid effort to communicate with the public,” he said.

Segert said that information given to the board should be unfiltered and made accessible to the public to prevent communication problems.

All candidates agreed that the role of the school board is as the boss of the superintendent — not as a peer or subordinate.

“Our responsibility is to see that the district operates in the proper manner,” said Tippin.

School district official explains tax levy proposal

Sally Beth Lyon, chief academic officer for the Columbia Public School district, spent 20 minutes explaining why the district has asked Columbia taxpayers to approve a 54-cent property tax levy increase. That vote will take place April 8.

Her explanation focused not on the $10 million the district spent this academic year to raise teacher pay by $1,000 and to hire 70 new employees, but instead on what the district has done and plans to do with its income.

“Last year, our community provided wonderful and generous support,” she said, referring to Columbia voters’ approval of the $60 million district bond issue.

That money, she explained, pays for “brick and mortar,” large expenses that do not occur regularly, such as land purchases and construction costs.

“I’m proud to report that the district is making good use and is on time and on track with the bond money,” she said, noting the construction of a new elementary school and progress on building a third comprehensive high school.

The tax levy increase would help pay for the district’s recurring expenses and other costs, such as employee salaries, textbooks and utilities, she said.

The extra money, which would bring about $10 million more to the district, is needed because transportation, retirement and salary costs have all increased for the district, she said.

The district now teaches 700 more students than it did in the 2002-2003 school year, the last time Columbia voters approved a tax levy increase for the school district, but district tax revenues have not increased at the same pace, she said. Lyon characterized the increase of 19 cents as “a relatively modest levy increase.”

Along with her presentation, Lyon passed out a tax levy question and answer sheet, which included exactly how much the increase would cost homeowners and how much money the district has in savings.

Again and again, Lyon’s message was centered around the positive work that the district is doing and the reasoning behind spending more money than the district took in this year.

“Our board of education can be celebrated and saluted for wanting to keep not only base salary but pay for all teachers competitive,” she said.

Missourian reporters Erin Ash, Anne Hauser, Rachel Heaton, Sean Madden, Regan Palmer and Audrey Spalding contributed to this report.

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