School Board hears possible budget cuts

Monday, March 10, 2008 | 10:40 p.m. CDT; updated 12:03 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

This article has been updated to reflect an e-mail clarification about why the cuts are being made sent by the school district late Tuesday afternoon. The text from the district appears at the end of the story.

COLUMBIA — For two hours Monday night, Columbia School Board members listened to Superintendent Phyllis Chase read through a list — item by item — of 108 cuts the district could make to save money.

She reviewed how much money each cut would save and what the district would lose.

More than 50 community members listened.

The list was not shown in a PowerPoint presentation, as is board custom, nor was it posted on the district Web site. Copies of the list weren’t available to the public as of late Monday night.

Assistant Superintendent Lynn Barnett said Monday that the document, more than 50 pages long, would be posted on the district Web site Tuesday morning, after the word “Draft” was removed from the front page.

The list of 108 cuts, some possible and some probable, was put together by district administrators based on the budget parameters that the school board voted on at its Feb. 11 meeting.

The cuts are coming after the district spent about $10 million more than it had in revenue this school year. (At the end of the story, please see an expansion of this sent by the district late Tuesday afternoon.) The school board has asked Columbia voters to approve a 54-cent property tax levy increase that will appear on the April 8 ballot, and it has pledged to cut $5 million from its annual budget regardless of whether the levy passes.

The first 54 cuts are labeled “Priority One,” and total about $5.2 million. Those, if approved by the school board, are the cuts that will be made regardless of the tax levy proposal’s outcome in April. The school board’s option is to approve all or none of these items for to cut or reduce.

That list included the reduction of several literacy coaches, reductions in overtime pay, the elimination of insurance for employees who work less than 30 hours per week and a $291,000 textbook budget reduction — money that could only be saved once.

The next 31 cuts are labeled “Priority Two,” totaling about $4.1 million, and include the possible elimination of many employees. Those, if approved by the school board, are the cuts that would be made if voters do not approve the tax levy.

The final 23 cuts are labeled “Priority Three,” and total about $3.8 million. Those are optional cuts the board can consider using as substitutes — but, as Chase said, would impact classrooms more than the others.

“List three could be down the road,” School Board President Karla DeSpain said. “Right now, it’s a substitution list, but later that could not be the case if things don’t change.”

Alan Vinson, a general contractor in Columbia, has had three children graduate from Columbia Public Schools, and watched board members discuss the proposed cuts.

“I don’t envy their job,” he said.

Though Vinson said he plans to vote for the levy increase, he wasn’t happy with the district’s deficit spending.

“You can’t spend what you don’t have,” he said.

In other business, Columbia Community Teachers Association President Howard Clark asked board members to increase the salary of some teachers next year in his presentation of the teachers group’s annual teacher salary recommendation.

Specifically, the organization recommended the school board increase each teacher’s pay by at least 2.3 percent for next year, in order to cover higher costs of living.

“This is a gutsy request, in that folks believe in what they do and ask for what they’re worth, and I know I myself will consider them quite seriously,” board member Michelle Gadbois said.

If the board decides to approve the recommendation, administrators will have to find a way to cut more money from the district’s annual budget.

During the public comment, Laurie Spate-Smith, president of the Columbia Missouri National Education Association, said the district’s lack of funds left the national association no option other than to agree with the teachers group’s salary recommendation.

However, she proposed the board make an addendum to any vote about teacher pay: If district revenues are greater than the expenses in the future, the board should use some of the excess to increase teacher salary.

That would, “send a message of good faith to teachers and staff,” she said.

The teachers group also recommended that the district maintain employee benefits, continue to pay teachers using the district’s teacher salary schedule and make sure that budget reductions are made “as far away from classrooms as possible.”

UPDATE: Late Tuesday afternoon, district spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark sent an e-mail to the Missourian asking for the following clarification:

"The cuts are not because of the new positions. The first priority list of a little more than $5 million in reductions is necessary in order to lower the tax levy amount from 79 cents to 54 cents. While there has been much talk about why the district needs the additional tax levy revenue it is not solely because of new hires made last year. The district needs the tax levy because of the following:

— State funding has changed

— District enrollment has increased by more than 700 students over the last five years

— Increased costs for employing teachers and staff over the last five years

— Increased costs in mandatory retirement benefits the district must pay over the last five years

— Increases in fixed costs such as transportation and utilities over the last five years"

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