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Letter: Columbia Public School tax levy is all about the kids

Friday, April 4, 2008 | 1:02 p.m. CDT; updated 5:57 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Columbia Public Schools tax levy really is a simple issue … it’s about the kids!

In 1997, I made the decision to move back to Columbia so my kids could receive a quality education. At the time, I was living in Kansas City where they have many alternatives to public schools. Parents can choose from one of the many parochial or private schools and some decide to move across the state line so their kids can attend Kansas public schools.

Because of these alternatives, the Kansas City schools suffer terribly from a lack of community ownership and funding. Because I’m a HUGE believer in the importance of quality public education, I stuck it out with the Kansas City school district (hoping things would improve) until my oldest son was 13. Finally, because of the abysmal lack of financial support from the voters and constant infighting among the school board, I threw in the towel, packed up my family and moved to Columbia so we could benefit from a strong public school system.

Although my children are grown, I will vote yes for the proposed tax levy increase on April 8. The Columbia Chamber of Commerce also understands the economic importance of a strong school system, and they have publicly endorsed this important measure.

However, I am very troubled that some of our business leaders are actively encouraging voters to reject the tax levy. Surprisingly, they give a rambling laundry list of reasons why they won’t support the increase, including the math curriculum. But for some reason, they don’t even mention the kids. Here are a few points to consider:

First, approximately 60 percent of our district’s funding comes from property taxes. In Columbia, approximately 27 percent of the land is tax-exempt. Although we are fortunate to have a number of higher education and government organizations in our community, and they definitely contribute to our economy, they are tax-exempt properties. As such, our district’s tax levy reflects a lower amount of real property subject to assessment when compared to other similar size districts such as Parkway, Francis Howell, Fort Zumwalt and Rockwood school districts. As a result, these districts have lower levies, but a higher tax base to work with.

Unless our tax base changes significantly (property mix and/or median home values), we can expect our levies to be higher to keep pace with population growth.

Second, special education is expensive. Columbia Public Schools exceeds the state average in the number of students with disabilities, the number of students with severe disabilities and the number of students with autism. It costs three and half times more to educate students with severe disabilities because of the special services they need, which often include one-on-one instructors and professionals (and this number recently went up by 100 students). Our school district is mandated to provide these special services, and it does not receive additional reimbursement to cover the higher costs.

Third, some have questioned the budget process. Preparation and discussion about the budget begins the year prior to the budget being approved. We each have the opportunity to weigh in on the budget at board meetings. Of course, it seems complex because there are many variables along with the state funding formula, but it should be noted the district’s business office has been recognized for excellence in financial reporting 25 times by the Government Finance Officers Association.

Fourth, I’ve decided transparency is in the eye of the beholder. To me, the district does try to reach all audiences, and it provides us ample opportunities to get information. Of course, we don’t want the district to use funds for fancy marketing and public relations, so it is up to us as citizens to be an active part of the communications process. Here are just a few ways you can participate:

All board meetings are open and allow for public comment at the beginning of the meeting

All board meetings are taped and aired on Channel 16, the district’s cable access channel

The district has a quarterly newsletter and an annual report that goes out to all patrons in the district and provides information on financial issues

The district has a monthly electronic newsletter with about 3,000 subscribers. You can register on their Web site to get it free.

- The district operates a very detailed Web site that is updated daily with board minutes, presentations, construction plans, budget, etc. Contact information for all board members is also posted on the Web site.

- The district has numerous committees and task forces community members can serve on. The volunteer form is on the Web site, and you can sign up to serve on various committees … yes, even the Math Advisory Council.

As I said at the beginning, it really needs to be about the kids. We have incredibly dedicated teachers and administrators who work very hard every day to deliver high quality education to our children. They need and deserve our gratitude and financial support. It makes no sense to use the tax levy as a way to “punish” or “send a message” to the school board and district administration. We have other, more productive channels of communication available to us.

If you’re still in doubt, I encourage you to talk to a teacher or school board member and get the real story, then vote yes on April 8.


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