Letter: Tax levy will keep Columbia Public Schools competitive

Friday, April 4, 2008 | 10:53 a.m. CDT; updated 1:41 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

On April 8, Columbia Public Schools will ask voters to approve a 54-cent tax levy increase to keep our schools competitive and to maintain progress toward the Board of Education’s goals to:

• Increase achievement for all students

• Eliminate achievement disparities between groups of students

• Maximize resource efficiency

Unlike the no-tax-increase bond passed last April for building new schools and maintaining current schools, a levy supports district operating expenses such as staff salaries and benefits, educational supplies and materials and basic needs such as utilities and transportation. By law, bond funds cannot be used to pay operating expenses.

Why do we need a tax levy increase?

In the last five years, the costs of employing teachers and staff have increased. Insurance benefits have increased by 47 percent, and retirement costs, which are set by state statute, are up by 44 percent. Costs of utilities and transportation are up 45 percent. Fuel for buses has increased 400 percent. Student enrollment has increased by more than 700 students. Secondly, funding from the state has leveled off and is, in fact, generating less revenue than previous years.

Over the last 18 years, the levy has increased three times. On average, an increase is needed every five to six years to maintain programs and competitive salaries. The last levy increase was in 2003. Based on an assessment by financial consultants, this levy increase, coupled with an internal budget reduction of $5 million, will result in financial stability for the next five years.

Has the district ever reduced its levy?

Absolutely. While assessed valuation in Columbia is up, a state statue known as the Hancock Amendment does not allow a district to benefit more than the consumer price index. As a result, the district reduced its levy by 24 cents in 2006.

How much will this cost the average taxpayer?

The proposed levy increase equals a $102.60 annual increase (or $8.55 per month) on a home with an assessed valuation of $100,000.

Is there tax-relief for senior citizens and low-income individuals?

Yes, there are opportunities available for tax relief for senior citizens, citizens with disabilities and U.S. veterans.

How is the school district helping to balance the budget?

In order to keep the levy increase at a reasonable rate, the district will also cut its operating budget by $5 million. Together with the tax levy increase, this will allow the district to stop spending its reserves and maintain a balanced budget for a projected five years. The decision to make these cuts reflects our fiscal accountability to the taxpayers. Please note that my salary and the salaries of other administrators in the district will also be reduced in order to keep the initial cuts as far from the classroom as possible. In fact, reductions to district administration make up nearly $1 million of the $5 million in reductions that will be made regardless of the passage of the levy.

What are reserves? Why does a school district need reserves?

The reserve fund is a savings account. These funds are meant to be used to cover payroll and district expenses when revenue funds are not available, as well as to cover unpredictable emergency expenses.

How were the reserves spent?

Almost 70 percent went directly to current staff salaries and benefits. By adding $1,000 to the base of the salary schedule and then operating that schedule, $6.8 million of reserves were allocated directly to teacher and staff salaries. The remaining 30 percent included the 68 new positions added last year. These positions were in support of academic excellence. Examples include:

• 4.75 teachers for English language learners to support an increased number of students entering this district with virtually no English skills

• 6.5 special education teachers to address an increase in our special education population

• 5 counselors and 2 assistant principals to deal with substance abuse prevention and student safety issues

• 12 classroom teachers to support increased enrollment in the district

Why did the district spend down reserves in 2007-2008?

Under the old funding formula, districts experienced huge funding swings from year to year when the state was not able to provide full funding. An example is the $10 million funding swing the district experienced in 1998 and a $6 million swing in 2003. Because of a healthy reserve fund, these funding swings did not result in layoffs or program cuts mid-year. For the last eight years, the district has maintained a reserve fund in the range of 24 percent of its operating fund. While this new funding formula, known as Senate Bill 287, is not as lucrative as the former funding mechanism two years prior, it is more stable, therefore eliminating the need for high reserves that were required to balance the shortfalls of the previous funding mechanism. With the support of representatives of our teachers’ groups, this district chose to lower the reserve fund to 16 percent, or two months of salary and operational costs.

What will passing the tax levy provide for this community?

Passage of the levy will allow the district to continue to provide an excellent education as well as the high quality services this community expects and deserves for its children.

On April 8, the district will be asking you to approve a tax levy increase to help us continue to provide the same high level of achievement this community expects. Your support and trust of our public schools are vital to continued success.

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