Maybe the best thing about Election Day is this: If you’re going to do your duty as a citizen, you have to get off the fence. Regular readers will recall that I’ve been perched uncomfortably as I equivocated about the school tax that we will vote on, on Tuesday.
The other thing about being a good citizen is that you really should learn as much as you can about the issue at hand. That, of course, is where journalists come in. It’s our job to invest the time and effort few of you can spare to find out what we all need to know.
So I dutifully joined a gaggle of reporters and a handful of passionate citizens at 7:30 on a drizzly Thursday morning to listen as the Columbia School Board made the promised cuts in next year’s budget and issued the necessary warning of more cuts to come if the tax levy fails. By the time you read this, you’ll have absorbed the details the Missourian’s Audrey Spalding and her colleagues, print and broadcast, took away from that two-hour session.
What I took away were several observations, a few facts I hadn’t fully grasped before, and the conclusion I’ll act on Tuesday.
One observation is that our school board members and the professional staff —dedicated and hard-working as they are — aren’t their own best advocates. They spend a lot of time talking to each other but not enough talking to the rest of us. By doing things like scheduling important meetings for 7:30 a.m., they make it too easy for us outsiders to remain ignorant of the important issues and expensive details that go into the operation of our schools. That may come back to bite them, and us, during this election.
An observation I’ve made before was confirmed. The elected board members are, and can’t help being, at the mercy of the professionals when it comes to the specifics on which policy is based. I was impressed Thursday morning with how much the board members know and how much they care. But all their questions about dollars or the other facts of school life went to staff members, who seemed to have those facts at their fingertips.
This reality means two things. The first is that we have to be able to trust both the competence and the judgment of the administrators. The second is that we should be sure to elect more board members who’ll ask hard questions and ask them in public.
The most important facts I took away Thursday are these: Columbia Public Schools are underfunded now, considering all we ask of them. Even if the tax increase passes, teachers and others will lose a day’s pay next year, and other important services will be diminished. If the levy fails, class sizes will increase, optional courses will decrease and our district will fall farther behind in teacher salaries.
The stated goals of the district are to maximize student achievement, to reduce disparities among groups of students and to operate efficiently. I don’t see how voting against the tax increase will advance us toward any of those goals.
I’m off the fence and voting yes.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.