COLUMBIA — Through steady rain and early claps of thunder, voters arrived at the polls on Tuesday talking about the Columbia Public School District’s closely contested property tax levy increase and school board elections.
On the ballot, the district asked voters to approve a 54-cent tax increase per $100 of assessed property and choose three school board members from a list of six candidates.
As they talked about school issues outside the polls, voters also had words of advice for the yet-to-be-elected board members.
“It’s a big and difficult job, no question about it,” said Nelson Trickey, who is 83 and retired. “They’re gonna have to do their homework; otherwise we might repeat the problems of last year.”
While most voters interviewed said they did not approve of the district’s management of the budget, many said they could not vote against the initiative.
“I think that despite some poor decisions made by the administration, I really understand the need for the tax levy,” said Dan Ware, a 30-year-old teacher. “For me, it’s a matter of we as a district need money to continue doing what we’re doing. The longer we wait for the funds, the harder it is to make up the difference.”
Some parents said they could not vote against money being used in the education of their children.
“I can’t vote in good conscience against the school levy because of my daughter, but the high school and budget issues have not been handled well,” said state administrator Jason Ramsey, 34.
Last Thursday, the school board approved $5.23 million in budget cuts that included reductions in employee benefits and the loss of 38 district jobs, 24 of them through attrition. Board members and administrators said that if the levy increase did not pass, further cuts would impact class size and might impair the ability of the district to maintain the current level of education to students.
Despite those statements, some voters rejected the increase to direct a message to the people in charge of the district.
“The way the professed need came about seemed like bad business,” said city employee Bill Cantin, 34. “I think the kids and the school district deserve better than that. I didn’t look at it as a vote against the kids.”
Others voted against the tax increase as a reaction to the current economic downturn.
“I would like us to spend our money efficiently,” said Dan Carlson, a 54-year-old hotel owner. “Right now, the economy’s slow. I can’t go raising my rates. Why does that principle apply any different to the public sector?”
Some voters who disapproved of the tax levy increase but wouldn’t vote against it turned their attention to the school board race as a way to change the district.
“I didn’t appreciate the blackmail,” said Karen Hajicek, a 37-year-old attorney and mother of three school district students, who “begrudgingly” voted for the increase. “I prefer to vote out the board.”
Many early voters echoed Hajicek’s sentiments and said they favored candidates who advocated changing the school board as part their campaigns.
“I voted for (Ines) Segert, (Rosie) Tippin and (Gale “Hap”) Hairston, because I don’t agree with the way the current board members have been handling the big issues the last two to three years,” Ramsey, the state administrator, said. “I think it’s time some of the incumbents take a step down and let some fresh perspectives with new ideas come on board.”
Bob Smith, an Internet technology professional, voted for Tom Rose, Tippin and Segert based on the candidates’ comments and media reports.
“I like their positions, and I didn’t like the incumbents,” said Smith, 69.
Rose was appointed to the board in June 2007 to succeed departing board member Don Ludwig. Rose, who recently returned to work on the school board after a heart attack, attracted positive attention in March following a rare moment when he left his place at the board table to approach the podium during public comment. He told the board that many of the controversial issues in the district over the past year could have been resolved through a better communication between the school district and community members and the media.
That communication from board members seemed to be what voters such as Joe Toepke, a 37-year-old National Guardsman on active duty, were looking for.
“I voted for and support people who are open-minded,” Toepke said. “I believe people can have an opinion; it’s not proper to suppress one opinion over another.”
No matter who is elected, voters said there are several issues, such as money management, they would like addressed.
Steve Fox, 48, a computer systems manager, said the new school board must “do whatever they can to change the way the administration of the district spends their money.”
Meanwhile, some voters, such as Kelly Garrett, a 38-year-old education philanthropist, wanted the new school board to focus on larger issues affecting the health of the district.
“The most important thing is close, not narrow, not shorten, but close the achievement gap,” he said.
Missourian reporters Erin Ash, Eleonora Barak, Rebecca Delaney, Kate Genellie, Jane Kellogg, Regan Palmer and Audrey Spalding contributed to this report.
Want to have your say on election results? Go to the Missourian’s online discussion of schools at schoolhousetalk.blogspot.com.