Voters say no, loudly, to school tax levy

Tuesday, April 8, 2008 | 10:53 p.m. CDT; updated 4:35 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Tracy Greever-Rice didn’t vote against the school district; she voted to send a message.

“This is the first time ever in my life I’ve voted against a school bond or levy,” the 44-year-old MU researcher said. “The sky won’t fall — they can put a levy out next year and if the district is on its historic footing, I am sure it will pass.”

Her no-vote, Greever-Rice said, was very much tied to her disappointment in how the district is run.

“The board and the district’s administration need to take the parents’ values seriously and consider them as partners, not as subjects,” she said.

The choice put before voters in the Columbia Public School District on Tuesday was a dismal one: If citizens didn’t approve a 54-cent tax levy increase, administrators and school board members said, at least $5 million more in benefits, supplies and employees would be cut from the district’s annual budget.

Voters said no, loudly. In a community with a history of usually approving school tax and bond issues, the almost 62 percent rejection is a strong statement.

“I voted no,” said Steve Fox, 48, a computer systems manager. “I think they need to change the way they spend money and while I realize that, I think teachers and staff always need to be paid more. I think that this was my only effective method of sending a message that they need to change the way they spend money.”

Superintendent Phyllis Chase said the rejection is “a part of the democratic process. We understand that. And we have to recommit ourselves to finding out what that message was about and what we can do to turn that message around.”

With the next round of administrator-recommended cuts to the 2008-2009 budget, the equivalent of 53 more jobs will be lost. Board President Karla DeSpain said that when the levy increase failed, those cuts became inevitable.

“That was the understanding going in and that is what will happen,” DeSpain said.

On April 14, the old school board will meet briefly and then disband. New board members Rosie Tippin and Ines Segert, along with incumbent Tom Rose, will be sworn in and then the revamped board will immediately begin some heavy lifting. In the coming months, members will have to decide next year’s budget without the additional $10 million the levy would have brought in.

Last year, when the board voted to hire 70 additional employees and raise teacher base pay by $1,000, both board Vice President Darin Preis and member Don Ludwig realized the district would have to ask for more money soon. They said as much at the public board meeting, which was aired later on public access television.

But the district did not ask for a levy increase at the time, administrators said, because it had set aside so much money, $26 million, in its reserves. Better, their rationale went, to spend about $10 million of the extra now and ask for a tax levy increase later.

At the polls Tuesday, Andrew Anz, a resident physician, called that a “backwards process.”

“They spent the money before they had it and then asked if they could get the money,” said Anz, 27. For this reason alone, he voted no.

Pack Matthews, a former teacher in Massachusetts, voted against what he characterized as a threat.

“I was annoyed at pressure put on teachers to encourage others to support the levy,” Matthews said. “They threatened that their salaries would be — that’s just not right.”

The next round of cuts will be inserted into the budget and approved that way, not separately. “They now become a part of formulating the remainder of the budget,” Chase said. Those cuts include paying teachers for fewer days worked and stipends for bus duty, detention and before- and after-school supervision.

Many voters polled by the Missourian said this was the first time they voted against a school measure.

“I have a perfect record since 1972 of voting for every school tax increase proposed,” said John McCormick, who became vocal in school issues when the district looked to build a high school on land neighboring his. “They just really lost my confidence.”

Sally Thornton, a retired cashier from West Junior High School, said she’s “all for the teachers but not the administration. I’m afraid teachers might get cut now, but we need to send a message.”

“We pay so much — was it $1.7 million for consultation? Chase has such a high salary. They’re not using my taxes wisely,” said Barbara Sell, secretary for Project Construct.

“We have to work to maintain the trust of those who have voted yes,” Chase acknowledged, “and recommit ourselves to building the trust of those that voted no and did not see the value of voting for the levy.”

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