On the fence about school tax vote

Saturday, March 29, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:59 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

It’s not the best time to be asking Boone Countians to reach deeper into our pockets, but it’s the necessary time.

For those of us who live inside the Columbia and Columbia school district boundaries, two of the three requests for more money that we’ll find on the ballot April 8 deserve an easy Yes. Both are sewer bond issues, both required by a need to meet higher environmental standards. The county sewer district request is an especially easy one to support because the cost will be paid by the district’s customers and not us city dwellers.

As the Missourian helpfully explained last weekend, the improvements to the city’s sewer treatment plant will have to be made whether we pass the bond issue or not. The only real question is whether we pay now, with sharply higher rates and no bond issue, or later, with lower increases spread over more years. And the connection fees for new customers are going up, though probably not enough to cover the true cost. I’m voting for both. I’m guessing you will, too.

The school tax is a tougher call, at least for me. For some, it seems easier. The deep thinker over at that other newspaper concludes that the way to force greater efficiency on school administrators is to reject the tax increase. He has often made the same argument about our university. I’ve usually thought he was wrong about the university, which is chronically underfunded. This time, the old boy just might be right.

A lot of people appear to think so. I’ve been surprised at the skepticism, even hostility, I’ve heard from friends who’ve never voted against a school tax before. The word on the street, as they say, is that this increase is likely to be rejected, maybe strongly rejected.

I understand the skepticism. As I’ve written previously, I share it. Superintendent Phyllis Chase and her Greek chorus on the school board undermined their credibility first by deciding too quickly and too secretively on the wrong site for the new high school. Then they failed to make clear the implications of their decision to dip into the reserve fund to hire people and raise salaries, decisions they knew — but the rest of us didn’t — would require a tax increase.

It’s also true that the board, like nearly all such sets of elected amateurs (see, for example, the Columbia City Council over the past quarter century), takes its direction from the hired professionals and doesn’t ask enough hard questions.

The hard question we voters face is whether the appropriate penalty for those transgressions is rejection of the proposed 54-cent levy increase. The evidence before us so far could support either answer. Dr. Chase and the board are promising to trim $5 million even if we grant the increase. Most of those trims look reasonable and relatively painless.

However, when you look at the cuts that a No vote would demand, you see the knife reaching closer to the real heart of the educational enterprise. The skeptic in me asks whether those are really the necessary cuts.

I’m on the fence, and that’s always uncomfortable.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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