Public had plenty to say to school board about proposed cuts

Friday, March 21, 2008 | 12:50 p.m. CDT; updated 3:42 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Columbia School Board listened Thursday evening to 32 community members’ opinions about the budget cuts the board will vote on in April.

The meeting ran longer than four hours, until about 11 p.m.

The story so far

The Columbia Public School District has pledged to cut $5 million from its more than $163 million annual operating budget. At the March 10 meeting of the Columbia Public School Board, Superintendent Phyllis Chase presented 108 cuts the district could make to save money. The items are divided among three lists:
  • “Priority /I” (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 April 8.
  • “Priority II” (about $4.1 million) These cuts would be made if the levy doesn’t pass.
  • “Priority III” (about $3.8 million) These are viewed as substitutes for other cuts and would affect classrooms more, Chase said.

What’s next?

The board is likely to vote at its next meeting after it continues to discuss the proposed cuts at 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.

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At the board meeting March 10, Superintendent Phyllis Chase spent two hours reading through the list of 108 proposed budget cuts; contrast that to Thursday’s meeting, where the first two hours were filled with comments from parents, teachers and children.

The tone of two hours was supportive and friendly. The time was spent mostly on a proposed cut in transportation to Ridgeway Elementary School, a magnet school that draws students from throughout the Columbia Public School District for its individually guided curriculum, and on cuts in the district’s gifted program. At least three speakers were applauded:

• “You have to get feedback from the kids,” said Gail Harmata, a Hickman High School sophomore who criticized the district’s Positive Behavior Support system and, in general, the data used to support certain programs. She said the district doesn’t poll the students, who should be its main concern.

• “Why would we cut the professionalism of the people working with the health of our children?” asked Lyle Johnson, who criticized the proposed “savings” that could be made by lowering the district’s requirements for nurse certification.

• “Please don’t take away Mr. Woody’s job, we need him,” said a Ridgeway mom on behalf of her first-grade son, whose teacher, “Mr. Woody,” is the ultimate arbiter of fairness during recess at Ridgeway. She criticized the proposed cuts of pay for time spent working on school playgrounds.

• “Ridgeway has roots,” said Jo Steitz, a former Ridgeway teacher. She didn’t get applause, but Steitz got a big cheer when she asked “to hear a big ‘wahoo’ from the Ridgeway parents.”

More than 10 Ridgeway parents and teachers showed up to ask the district to continue to foot the $250,000 annual cost it takes to bus children to the school. During the night, they trickled out, and the rest of the audience of more than 80 also thinned as the board meeting continued past 10 p.m.

Ridgeway’s proposed transportation cut is number 73 on the board’s list. If it stays there, it will be a Priority II cut and will not be included in the first round of cuts the board will make for the $5 million it has promised to “save.”

That’s the magic distinction that board Vice President Darin Preis stressed Thursday night. If a proposed cut stays in either the Priority II or Priority III category, and if voters pass the proposed 54-cent tax levy increase, then that cut won’t actually be made.

At this point, categorizing a cut as Priority II or III appears to be more of a threat than a reality.

“Every comment I’ve heard so far is for making a case for supporting the tax levy,” Preis said.

“Raising these issues on the eve of a tax levy is just a bad combination,” said Kurt Schaefer, a former deputy director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. He said he understands the board’s situation — his former organization has an annual budget twice that of the district — and that tough decisions have to be made in a transparent way.

“Sometimes you’ve got to say these programs have got to go because they’re not part of our core function,” Schaefer said.

After public comment, each board member listed cuts he or she felt should be prioritized differently. Here’s what they said, in brief:

• Darin Preis suggested that cut 65, a one-day decrease in district employees’ work days, be moved from Priority II to Priority I. That cut saves the district $467,000. Both Jan Mees and Steve Calloway agreed. Preis said that with that extra money in Priority I, cuts 29, 33, 44, 49, 51 and 54 could all be moved to Priority II. Those include cuts in the ACT prep classes for minority students and stipends for teachers who spend time supervising before- and after-school programs.

• Michelle Gadbois advocated removing from consideration completely cuts that affect the district’s gifted program. At one point, she considered moving the Ridgeway transportation cut from Priority II to Priority I. She also suggested that 48, a cut of 12 full-time positions in the special education program at district middle schools, be moved to Priority II from Priority I.

• Steve Calloway said he was uncomfortable saving programs that benefit select groups of students while cutting programs that would hurt many. He, along with Preis, said the board should examine the proposed cut of insurance for part-time employees who work fewer than 30 hours. Both members were interested in lowering that boundary to 25 hours.

• Jan Mees repeatedly suggested asking parents to contribute — through volunteering or helping to foot the Ridgeway transportation bill — as a way to continue to provide programs the district couldn’t finance.

• Karla DeSpain advocated the district’s academic high-achievers. She suggested that cut 16, the $52,000 spent on travel for student academic teams and 20 percent of chief academic officer Sally Beth Lyon’s office budget, be moved to Priority II.

• Tom Rose, who recently had a heart attack, was not present. He did e-mail board members with comments, which Preis said were generally supportive of the administration’s work and of the research that went into compiling the list of 108 proposed cuts.

• Board member David Ballenger was not present.

The next step is for Linda Quinley, director of business services, to take the suggested swaps and figure out how those will affect the money saved in each priority category. On Thursday, administrators promised that the information will be posted on the district’s Web site.

The future of Ridgeway’s transportation, despite the number of supporters who showed, is still uncertain.

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