School board to vote on budget cuts

Tuesday, April 1, 2008 | 7:06 p.m. CDT; updated 11:19 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — At least three members of the Columbia School Board say they will vote to cut $5 million from the district’s annual budget on Thursday morning.

Board President Karla DeSpain, Vice President Darin Preis and member Jan Mees said they will tweak a list of first-to-go items, known as Priority I, and then approve their elimination from the budget.

Although the public will be able to comment before the board votes, approval of the cuts is nearly certain, DeSpain said.

Preis said he will recommend keeping two literacy coach positions, which right now are among four such positions on the Priority I list. The estimated savings from cutting those two jobs is $121,000.

Other top-tier items include:

  • Cutting one work day from contracts for 1,549 employees, for savings of $467,726.
  • Increasing the wait time for certain employees to get health insurance, for a savings of $160,332.
  • Reducing curriculum textbook budgets, for a savings of $297,974.

Preis said the Priority I list in its current state totals about $5.3 million. He would like to see that figure closer to the $5 million mark that the district pledged to cut.

“I don’t really want to cut more than we have to,” he said, “so I should be able to swing that.”

DeSpain said she thinks all seven members will attend the meeting. It is a continuation of one on March 20 that drew some 80 people.

DeSpain said the board postponed the vote on the budget cuts, which Superintendent Phyllis Chase presented at the March 10 board meeting, because they felt the public had not been given enough time to express their opinions on the 108 proposed cuts.

“We worked through (the Priority I list) and got a lot of input from folks over the last month, so I feel very comfortable with that list, though it might be tweaked,” DeSpain said.

In less than a week, Columbia voters will decide the future income and leadership of the district. The district will get a $10 million revenue boost if voters approve its proposed 54-cent tax levy increase on April 8. Voters will also decide who will fill three vacant seats on the board.

If the levy is not approved by voters, the new board will meet April 14 to discuss making an additional $5 million in cuts from the Priority II and III lists, Preis said. Chase said this is the first time in her career that she has dealt with a proposed tax levy increase.

Mees said the board’s intention was to make only cuts that would not directly affect children in the classroom. She stressed that voters should approve the tax levy because the next rung of cuts would have a greater impact on schools.

“I would like for our constituents to really, really consider how this is going to affect the quality of education and the quality of Columbia’s reputation,” Mees said. “I’m sorry, but if you have to make these kind of cuts it is going to affect how instruction is delivered.”

Teacher contracts are affected by the Priority I cuts. Mary Laffey, assistant superintendent for human resources, must deliver those contracts by April 15. She said cutting salaries and health insurance of employees is problematic because they are still expected to complete the same job.

“If you are the single breadwinner for your family, then it will have a bigger impact,” Laffey said. “But nothing is ‘fluff’ on the Priority I list. Nothing is desirable.”

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