With tax levy approval uncertain, school board looks at future cuts

Thursday, April 3, 2008 | 7:12 p.m. CDT; updated 2:07 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

This story has been changed to clarify board member Jan Mees' position on the tax levy increase. Mees, a former teacher in the district, supports the passage of the tax levy increase.

COLUMBIA — So much seems to hang on the outcome of the April 8 tax levy increase. After making $5.2 million in annual budget cuts Thursday, the Columbia Public School district turned its attention to cutting more. If the levy fails, school board members say they will have to cut at least $5 million more from the budget, meaning fewer jobs, reduced teacher stipends and increased class sizes.

At the board’s March 20 meeting, Vice President Darin Preis was the most vocal about the community’s need to approve the increase. Repeatedly, he said if the increase passed, remaining cuts could be avoided. Thursday, board President Karla DeSpain, members Steve Calloway, David Ballenger, Michelle Gadbois, Jan Mees and Tom Rose agreed.

Board members also raised the possibility of leaning on parent volunteers to continue district programs, such as providing transportation to students.

“I know people say if this doesn’t pass it won’t affect us,” DeSpain said. “I say probably, in the first year, it won’t because we have people in the district who will do what it takes. But we can’t expect them to sustain that over a long period of time because we’re going to be taking advantage of folks.”

“After the last meeting, I felt silly begging for the levy, but then I realized issues like this is why we need it,” Preis said, referring to transportation cuts at Ridgeway Elementary.

“They are focusing on alarmist possibilities,” said John McCormick, who has recently criticized decisions made by the school board.

“People say we don’t need the levy — I simply disagree,” Calloway said.

“People have a very deep skepticism about whether they’re being told all the facts,” said McCormick, who served on the high school site selection committee.

Since their past meeting, board members have received a slew of e-mails from community members about individual cuts. Mees said she was unable to respond to the more than 200 e-mails she received.

“I appreciate people advocating what is important to them,” Preis said.

While Tom Rose appreciated the more vocal community members advocating for saving specific programs and jobs, he said the board must first consider the financial health of the district.

“Are we looking at the benefit of the whole or the benefit of the individual?” he said. “My Catholic faith tells me I should work for the benefit of the individual no matter what. Sometimes I think we do that to the sacrifice of the whole.”

A possible cut in bussing students to Ridgeway Elementary was the major item of discussion at this and the last board meeting. The cut would save an estimated $250,000. It is not the largest cut, nor would it reduce the number of district employees, yet seven Ridgeway teachers and staff members showed up Thursday wearing the school’s blue shirts and sat through 45 minutes of board discussion, without commenting, before leaving in order to work at the school.

Board members have so far kept the Ridgeway reduction on the table.

A laundry list of more than 50 cuts was approved to make up the $5.23 million in cuts. However, two literacy coach positions slated to be cut were saved. The school board may have to cut an additional $5 million, including 10 more literacy coaches, if the tax levy increase does not pass.

Cuts are lumped into three categories: Priority I, which was approved, and Priorities II and III. Priority II cuts are where the district will first look to find that $5 million.

“We have to be very clear,” Preis said before discussing Priority II cuts. “We don’t want to be accused of bait and switch.”

Columbia has a track record of approving tax levy increases for the school district. In the past ten years, district voters approved two other tax levy increases, one for 19 cents in 2003 and another for 58 cents in 1999. But, the coming vote is not certain. The 2003 increase passed, barely, at 52 percent.

This academic year, the school board and district administrators have faced a high level of scrutiny from community members.

One of whom, MU chemistry professor Mike Harmata, spoke at the March 20 meeting and this one.

He asked the board rhetorically, “How many people are going to get canned if that levy doesn’t pass? That’s an important issue.”

As of Thursday, the equivalent of more than 38 employees lost their jobs.

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