COLUMBIA — The Columbia School Board handed the administration a proposed budget that is still $340,000 in deficit after debating for about four and a half hours Thursday night.
Before hearing public comments, board member Tom Rose suggested a plan that would cut $3.3 million in “non-controversial” areas. His plan saved Ridgeway busing, class sizes and the gifted program.
The board then decided to increase class sizes, but by only half the amount called for in administration recommendations.
“In no instance will we go over minimal standard,” said Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Education Jack Jensen. “It does increase classes in some places. I would like to split those classes.”
With those cuts the district would lose only seven elementary and five secondary teaching positions through attrition.
Because of that 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 $5.23 million from the budget. Now the board is facing the difficult decision of developing a budget for the upcoming school year while having to make $4.7 million more in cuts. The board must reach a consensus and approve a budget by June 30.
The board decided that it could not operate the teachers’ salary schedule for the coming budget year. Instead, the board pledged to offer teachers a 1 percent cost of living increase — below the 2.3 percent increase Columbia Community Teachers’ Association asked for this year — and projected resuming the salary schedule in the 2009-2010 school year.
The salary schedule is a system of pay increases for district employees based on education level and time served.
Board member Jan Mees remembered that the school board had not operated the salary schedule before, in 1995. When the district resumed the salary schedule the next year, teachers received the year’s credit toward their state retirement plans but not their salaries.
New board president Michelle Gadbois told the rest of the board that in the past ten days, she has received more than 1,500 e-mails and is receiving nonstop phone calls at work. After hearing what some of the public has to say, she has made it her goal to respond to 100 e-mails per day.
Her main concern is teachers’ salary. She brought up the possibility of dipping into the district’s reserve budget to compensate teachers.
“Looking at comparative budgets, I am not that startled by the reserve numbers if we do that this coming year,” Gadbois said.
Board member Steve Callaway made his reluctance to utilize reserves clear. He said it is better to try not to think about the short term and thinks the plan of suspending teacher salaries “provides us an opportunity to get our ducks in a row.”
“I don’t want to do something that would get us locked into something year after year,” Callaway said.
Mees said she is also uncomfortable with dipping into reserves. “I want to pay these people all of what they’re worth, but it may be a limited worth this time,” she said.
Amidst the talk of reluctance and discomfort, board member Ines Segert proclaimed that she has no problem with “going down a little bit in the reserves.”
“I think maybe it’s a good short-term solution to do something good for the teachers. I think it’s something important we need to do,” she said. “What people showed us in the election is ‘we don’t want you threatening us.’”
Her comments were met by applause. “I think if people felt we were doing what we could, if it meant we dipped a little bit, you heard it. I think people would be happy,” Segert said.
Segert’s comments were not the only ones made by board members about public concerns regarding the district.
Late in the meeting Rose asked what would happen if the 29 administrators, not on teacher salaries, were included in the cuts.
“What if we said we want to save $100,000 in those administration salaries?” Rose asked the board.
Superintendent Phyllis Chase replied saying in the past seven years they have only added 2.24 more administrators. She also said they are losing two days of work, which amounts to $22,000.
“It’s something we hear from the public so I have to bring it up,” Rose said.
A large, vocal contingent of Ridgeway parents and teachers attended the meeting to press the board to save busing to the magnet school.
Kellen Blow, a fifth-grader at Ridgeway, approached the podium to express his passion for Ridgeway. He said he had a hard time at his first school.
“When I got to Ridgeway, I was happier than ever,” he said. He said by taking away the busing, the district would be taking away opportunities for kids to learn.
“If you take away the buses to Ridgeway,” Blow said, “you take away their freedom to go there.”
Ridgeway mother Anne Youmans held back tears while she pled to the board about keeping Ridgeway busing the way it is. She said her first grade son, who attends the elementary school, has chronic kidney disease and is accommodated well by Ridgeway. She said that taking him out of Ridgeway would have serious consequences.
“I choose to send my children to Ridgeway just like I choose to brush my teeth and obey traffic laws,” Youmans said. “To cut (busing) seems hasty when in some situations the consequences are really long-lasting.”
Nick Boren, the district’s chief operations officer, discussed changes in the way students are bused that could save the program. Ridgeway students would continue to be transported to school, but it may result in 15 to 20 minute longer bus rides for some students.
Passing the $250,000 reduction cut for Ridgeway Elementary would affect many concerned teachers and students.
Segert mentioned that the district sends parents a letter saying that it will provide transportation. She inquired as to whether or not that was a contract and, if so, whether they need to stick to their word.
“I’m sure it is a promise,” said superintendant Phyllis Chase, “one that we do not want to break.” Community members applauded Chase’s statement.
Missourian reporter Tanner Flowers contributed to this report.