COLUMBIA — Teachers worried about cuts in benefits and salaries took a rare opportunity to air out their problems to new Columbia Public School District Board President Michelle Gadbois and Vice President Steve Calloway on Tuesday night.
More than 50 teachers, students, parents and patrons huddled around seven tables and in overflow seating in the school board chambers at 1818 W. Worley St. in a first-of-its-kind listening session. While many problems — some old and some new — were discussed in the nearly two and a half hour meeting, teachers concerned with the administration and the board’s plan to freeze teacher salaries were the most vocal attendees.
“This year is perhaps the worst possible time for a salary freeze,” said Phil Overeem, a teacher at Hickman High School, referencing the increased cost of insurance and cuts in benefits handed to teachers this year.
Thanks to a budget shortfall, the district has been looking for ways to cut more than $10 million out of their budget. Before the 54-cent property tax levy increase failed on April 8, the school board cut $5.2 million from the budget. Now they say they must cut $4.7 million more. Board member Tom Rose, who was also in attendance, said that if they continued operating the salary schedule, the amount of the remaining budget that would need to be cut would increase by $2 million.
Marilyn Tolson, a teacher at Rock Bridge High School, said she worried that there was no plan in place to restart the salary schedule.
“I don’t see our revenues increasing,” Tolson said. “If we took a salary freeze this year — and I don’t know how I’ll pay my bills next year — what happens next year?”
The salary schedule is the system of awarding teachers yearly salary increases based on time served and education level.
Many teachers and students in attendance worried about the effect freezing salaries would have on teacher morale. “Demoralized” became a oft-used word.
“We were demoralized at the defeat of the levy,” Overeem said.
“That’s not the way to build morale,” said Diana Cooksey, a learning specialist at Midway Heights Elementary, about the freeze.
Cooper Livingston, a student in the district, said the teachers’ morale could have an impact on student achievement.
“If they’re not enthusiastic, we won’t be able to learn,” Livingston said. “And if we don’t learn, we can’t achieve.”
Besides the impact of budget cuts on teacher salaries, attendees at the meeting discussed low building service salaries, the achievement gap, mold and noisy construction at Benton Elementary, literacy and math coaches, Special Education paraprofessionals and the pollution caused by Styrofoam lunch trays.
A number of teachers and patrons also questioned some of the district administration’s decisions, such as budget cuts and accountability issues.
When the tax levy increase failed, many voters said they were trying to send a message to the administration. Though the meaning of that message has been debated, Calloway said the meeting was a way of showing that the district was listening.
“I don’t think that I heard that non-passage of the levy means you don’t support the district,” Calloway told the crowd.
District administrators stayed away from the meeting to encourage more open discussion, said Gadbois.
“We would be a lot more guarded in front of administrators,” said Dean Klempke, a teacher at Lange Middle School.
Gadbois said board members will continue to have these listening sessions every month, either at the district’s administration building or at other sites in the community.
“We’ll continue to dialogue in a forthright manner,” she said.