Tuesday’s voters called the school system’s bluff

Voters sent a message with Tuesday’s rejection of the school tax increase. What remains to be seen is how the school board will respond.
Saturday, April 12, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:57 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Kennedy is a professor emeritus at the MU School of Journalism.

The voters have spoken. One voter who was against the school tax increase was, I suspect, speaking for many when she told a Missourian reporter Tuesday that she wanted to send a message. In Wednesday morning’s paper, Superintendent Phyllis Chase was quoted as saying she and the school board must figure out what that message was and how to respond.

That shouldn’t take long. I’ll try to help. My translation of the message being sent by the 62 percent who said no is this: We don’t trust your judgment, and we don’t like the way you’re handling the $96 million in local tax money you’re already getting.

It wasn’t a complicated message. We’ll see, beginning Monday night, how Dr. Chase and the board formerly known as hers will respond. This may make the situation a lot more complicated.

By asking for the biggest increase in a decade and then telling us in advance the consequences of rejection, the superintendent and the board had sent a message, too. To a lot of voters, and at least one editorialist across town, that message translated to: Give us your money or else.

The “or else” included a freeze in the salary schedule and an actual pay cut for teachers and administrators, reductions in teaching and guidance staff, fewer optional classes and, probably, increased class sizes.

A poker player might say that the voters looked at their cards and called what many saw as the school system’s bluff. Now we’ll see who’s bluffing.

If the draconian cuts that have been identified publicly really are, as we’ve been told, the only way to live within our means, the board surely will stick with them. When I voted for the tax increase, I was betting on that outcome and fearing that the community’s children will pay the price for the loss of trust.

The critics are saying that there are better, less painful, ways to save. One of the most outspoken of those critics, Ines Segert, was elected to the board, where she’ll join a couple of other skeptics and replace a true believer.

Board President Karla DeSpain has already said that the pain probably won’t be felt in full for at least a year because administrators will be able to reshuffle diminished resources and teachers will make do. But that, she insisted, can’t last. I guess we’ll see.

We’ll also see at least a couple of other interesting and important things. One is how, and whether, the board will regain its credibility. Fewer 7:30 a.m. sessions and more public discussion would be a start.

Something else we’ll see is whether Superintendent Chase survives. Will she decide there’s an easier way (or an easier place) to make a living? Will the reconstituted board decide that for her? Any superintendent is a lightning rod, and we’re in a thunderstorm.

The deadline for next year’s teacher contracts is closing in, so crucial decisions can’t wait. The school system we brag about, rely on and benefit from is facing hard times and hard choices.

Tuesday’s message from the voters was loud and clear. What we don’t know yet is whether it was wise.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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