COLUMBIA — “Hang in there” is the advice former Columbia School Board President Russell Still has for current Superintendent Phyllis Chase. “Keep operating the schools. Keep working hard. I think this will pass.”
The brunt of community criticism leveled at the Columbia Public School District this year has been focused on Chase. A lack of communication with the public, an appearance of closed-door decisions and a top-heavy administration are the main complaints.
That criticism contributed to a substantial defeat last week of a 54-cent increase to the property tax levy. Sixty-two percent of voters said no; many community members — at exit polls, in newspaper opinion pieces and anonymously online — have said this is a “message” for the district’s leaders, especially Chase.
The last time a tax levy was defeated in this community, it spelled the end for the schools’ superintendent. In online forums and on talk radio, many people have suggested this defeat might be the beginning of the end for Chase.
“That’s opinion,” Chase said. “I don’t view it that way. That’s a Board of Education decision — that’s not my decision.”
Chase said she is not looking for another job.
A tax levy failure does not necessarily signal the end for a superintendent, said Lynnanne Baumgardner, who served on the Columbia School Board in 1998, the last time the district unsuccessfully sought to get more money from voters through the property tax levy.
“I think it is not always the best idea to assume that because the tax levy failed, that was somehow a vote on Dr. Chase and therefore we should go shopping for someone else who would do something different or better,” said Baumgardner, who is now retired and works with the Columbia Public Schools Foundation.
Technically, the 1998 vote wasn’t to increase the property tax levy but to maintain the rate after the state required a 37-cent rollback. Almost 53 percent of voters said no. The 1996 vote, another rollback measure, was rejected by just over 51 percent of citizens.
Within months, then-Superintendent Russell Mayo left his post; the defeat wasn’t his sole undoing, but Baumgardner and Still said it underscored a relationship with the district that wasn’t working out.
These days, Mayo is deputy superintendent for the Allentown School District in Pennsylvania and is in the running to become superintendent there.
Still, the one who said Chase should hang in there has good reason to think the current wave of community criticism will pass; a year after Mayo left, voters approved a 58-cent increase to the tax levy. By then, the district had hired a new superintendent, former district teacher and administrator Jim Ritter.
In a community with several colleges, and where the school district itself is Columbia’s third largest employer, there is no question that education is valued. None of the more than 30 voters polled on election day nor former and current administrators have said that this year’s rejection was a vote against K-12 education.
Though proposed tax levy increases for school districts across the nation are never a sure bet, Columbia voters generally support school requests. Since 1980, three school tax measures out of nine have failed — in 1996 and 1998 during the Mayo years and the one last week.
Henry Lane, who was the de-facto leader of Citizens for Lower Taxes, a community group that campaigned against the 1998 proposed tax increase, and ran for school board five years in a row, said this year’s rejection is the beginning of the end for Chase.
“When you’re superintendent of Columbia Public Schools and you lose an election combined with a lot of public dissatisfaction, you can kiss your job goodbye,” said Lane, a former accountant. “She is going down the same road that Russell Mayo did.”
However, it might be more a matter of strategy than top leadership. The levy’s success may have hinged on how the district campaigned for it.
“It is always easier for people to respond favorably, when they’re asked to spend money, when you’re told here’s what you’re going to get for your money — these are the benefits for the children and for the community — instead of this is what we’re going to eliminate,” Baumgardner said. “That’s human nature.”
“The Ritter style was to be optimistic,” said Still. “We have a good system, we’re the greatest — that’s a good way to approach things for the district.”
This year, neither board members nor district administrators talked publicly about the additional good a higher tax levy would bring. Instead, the public was presented with $5 million in cuts that would be made if it failed.
“I think there were a lot of charges brought against the district that were not refuted,” Still said. “You have to act like you’re in a political campaign — every charge has to be answered.”
When asked if it was fair to link a tax levy increase’s success or failure directly to superintendent performance, Chase stepped up.
“I think as leader of the organization, one does assume responsibility for what is happening, no matter what’s happening,” she said. “The buck stops here.”
The district did not advocate for this tax levy proposal any more strongly than it has for other issues before voters, district spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said on election day.
“From our perspective, really what we do is try to inform the community about the issue,” she said. “We’ve done a number of presentations to various community and civic groups throughout Columbia.” The number of such presentations was 110, she said.
As a result of the 1998 failure, board members and district administrators took a more active role in advocating for a tax levy increase in 1999, Still said.
“Some board members and some who were not on the board went on a campaign,” Still said. “We raised some money and had a pro-tax increase lobby. We went on the radio. We had more of a campaign to support the tax increase.”
“We had learned something from ‘98,” he said. “You had to be more out there, you had to answer every charge. Maybe that’s something that this board’s learning, too.”
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