High turnout for Columbia School Board meeting

Thursday, March 20, 2008 | 11:55 p.m. CDT; updated 1:01 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — So many people turned out for the Columbia School Board meeting Thursday evening that a lobby outside the board chambers was turned into an overflow room with a closed-circuit TV. When the meeting began at 6:30 p.m., at least 80 people, including at least a half-dozen children, had turned out.

There appeared to be a delay of a few moments between what was happening in the board chambers and the lobby, prompting one board member to say, “It’s like having a laugh track out there.”

The story so far

The Columbia Public School District has pledged to cut $5 million from its over $163 million annual operating budget. At the March 10 meeting of the Columbia School Board, Superintendent Phyllis Chase presented 108 cuts the district could make to save money. The items are divided among three lists:
  • “Priority one” (about $5.2 million) If approved by the board, these cuts would be made regardless of whether voters approve a 54 cent property tax levy increase on April 8.
  • “Priority two” (about $4.1 million) These cuts would be made if the levy doesn’t pass.
  • “Priority three” (about $3.8 million) These are viewed as substitutes for other cuts and, Chase said, would affect classrooms more.

What’s next?

The board is likely to vote at its next meeting, after it continues to discuss the proposed cuts, 7:30 a.m. April 3 in the Administration Building, 1818 W. Worley St.
The full list of proposed cuts is available in a 59-page PDF file on the district’s Web site. Go to

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People seemed comfortable praising the board even as they criticized cuts proposed to pare $5 million from the Columbia Public Schools’ yearly operating budget. Several speakers offered support, saying they recognize board members have to make tough decisions.

Thirty-four people had signed up to address the board; 32 did so — and many were concerned about ending free busing to Ridgeway Elementary School. As a magnet school that emphasizes individually guided learning, it draws students from throughout the district using a lottery system.

“I think this is an issue of fairness. We really shouldn’t be treated differently in terms of having to pay any proportion of transportation costs,” said Judy Snyder, who has two children who went to Ridgeway and one who is there now.

“Parents will be deciding about whether to go to Ridgeway based not on the school but whether you have time to drop your kid off,” one mother said.

“We don’t even dig the bus that much, but it’s needed,” a mother said.

For the board’s consideration, the proposed cuts have been broken down into three lists, “priority one” items being first on the chopping block though no board vote was taken Thursday. Ending busing to Ridgeway is on the “priority two” list, but board member Michelle Gadbois suggested putting it in the priority one category.

“I personally don’t believe the Ridgeway busing will destroy the school from the outside in,” Gadbois said.

No consensus was reached about Ridgeway by the five board members present; Tom Rose is at home recovering from a heart attack, though he is still in touch via e-mail; and David Ballenger wasn’t there. At deadline for the Missourian’s print edition, the meeting had run past 4½ hours.

Other comments addressed:

Cuts to counseling: “The importance of the school counselors is monumental,” a school counselor said, citing statistics about students with major life concerns such as needing treatment for alcohol abuse or being separated from a parent serving in the military.

Ending insurance for part-time employees: “It leaves these women and children with no insurance coverage,” said a Parents As Teachers member.

Cuts to the gifted program Extended Education Experiences, known as “Triple E,” are on the “priority three” list.

Supporters included Terri Ogden, a mother of two, both of whom are in Triple E. “Twenty to 25 percent of students labeled as gifted will drop out without graduating,” said Ogden.

“It wouldn’t be fair for all the kids who are in it. I wouldn’t miss Triple E for the world,” said Zoe Ogden, a Parkade Elementary fifth-grader. “When I go to Triple E, I’m challenged, and I feel like I’m on the same level as everyone else.”

“Decreasing gaps in achievement is less important than allowing each student to reach their potential,” said Michael Harmata, who teaches chemistry at MU. He said the program has a “big impact” at the college level.

A few speakers raised the proposed property tax levy increase going before voters April 8. “I think raising these issues on the eve of a tax levy is a bad combination,” said Kurt Schaefer. “A little more time would have been nice.”

At several points during the meeting, Board Vice President Darin Preis pushed for approval of the levy increase. “Every comment I’ve heard is making an excellent case for the tax levy,” he said.

At another point, Preis said he “wasn’t above begging people to pass that tax levy.”

Hickman High School sophomore Gail Harmata said the information the board has gathered doesn’t reflect input from students. “You really have to get feedback from the kids,” she said.

Missourian reporters Audrey Spalding, Kate Genellie and Regan Palmer reported this article.

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