New School Board vice president thinks a more positive sell would help

Wednesday, May 7, 2008 | 5:52 p.m. CDT; updated 12:54 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Steve Calloway, Columbia School Board vice president, speaks at a meeting April 3. Calloway sat down recently to answer questions about the voters’ rejection of the levy increase and about life on the new board.

COLUMBIA — In 1999, Steve Calloway campaigned for the Columbia Public School District’s tax levy increase — as a parent. The previous year, the district’s proposed 37-cent increase had failed, so Calloway and other parents formed the Columbia Parents for Public Schools to explain why the district needed more money.

Their efforts prevailed, and voters said yes to a property tax increase of 58 cents.

Now, after the district’s failed 54-cent tax levy increase, Calloway finds himself in a similar situation — this time as the new vice president of the Columbia School Board.

Calloway sat down recently to answer questions about the voters’ rejection of the levy increase and about life on the new Columbia School Board.

What have you learned from the recent tax levy failure?

It’s always better to be positive about what people are going to get than what they’re going to lose. It’s a better message; it’s a more positive message. I think the other thing that I have learned is people are interested in the process, so I think engaging people more about what you need and why you need it and letting them weigh in and be advocates for what they want is important.

This year, we had district administration and district staff doing a lot of the presentations around the tax levy and, aside from the content and the approach, it needs to come from other people besides the district staff. It needs to come from board members, from former educators, from business members and people in the community.

Has there been any discussion about asking for a tax levy increase next year?

I know people have suggested it. To say that we’re going to ask for a tax levy again next year is a little premature. We don’t have all the numbers in yet; there’s still this big revolving question surrounding the deficit.

It’s all based on whether or not our assessed valuation comes in better than the 3.5 percent growth that the budget was built on. All of those things make it way too premature to say whether we’re going to go out and ask for a tax levy increase.

People are saying, why didn’t you go out for a levy last year? I think they forgot that we asked for a bond last year.

I do think that if we do want to do something really significant for teachers, i.e. salaries, and we think we should do something next year, that would be a good reason in my mind to do something. And to say that: This is for teachers.

And not just teachers — the MAG (Management Advisory Group) study showed that custodians, clerical staff, noncertificated staff, including building services, are significantly underpaid here. Their wages need to be competitive in our community for CPS to be able to recruit and retain them.

From where you stand, how long could the district last without raising the tax levy?

I think we do need to decide very soon if we think we’re going to go out for a levy. Some of that will be decided by what we do this year and what our June 30 bottom line ends up looking like.

You were just elected vice president of the school board. How have your responsibilities changed?

It’s kind of scary that with only two years completed, I’m in a position to be president or vice president. It’s kind of one of those things where you go, wow, two years on the board, and I’m vice president.

It’s a time to draw on the experience I’ve just gained from two years, to step up. I think really it’s a time to exert some leadership among the board and to really try and take a look at our board and our interactions with the administration and our public.

Board meetings seem to be more contentious. The new board’s first meeting after the election began with a 4-3 vote, when generally board votes are unanimous. ... (New board member) Ines Segert has asked some pointed questions about funds. Tom Rose at one point almost seemed to suggest that Superintendent Phyllis Chase could take a pay cut. Are these discussions beneficial?

Are they beneficial — they make us stay a lot longer. That’s not good. (Laughs.)

I’ve been thinking about board work, and I think board work is not about everybody being in agreement. We had more deliberation even before the election. In March, we had quite a bit of discussion and dialogue, and clearly people had different feelings about the things we had in front of us.

I think that diversity of opinion is good. What I’d like for us to do is to do a better job around what that looks like. The perception you have is that it’s contentious. Well, my goodness, I don’t want the perception to be there that our meetings are contentious. I would much rather that the perception be that they are thoughtful, that they are respectful of opinions of all.

Many people who voted against the tax levy and school board incumbents said they wanted to send a message to the district. What steps can the board take to address that criticism and then begin to move forward?

Make sure that we understand and know what that message was. And that we commit ourselves to correcting that situation.

And do you know what that message is?

I think people thought the board was disingenuous about our intentions to go out for a tax levy, and so the actions around spending from the deficit were, if you will, putting ourselves in a deficit position. People thought we did that with the expectation that the community would just pass a tax levy.

The next piece of that is the perception of spending reserves, on recurring expenses. From a financial standpoint, we shouldn’t have done that. I heard that.

The last piece is that people want to be heard. I think they want us to engage them around the process. What I heard is that they do want some input into it. Not just the community but the teachers and our staff, and I think the process of how that happens is not so clear.

It’s got to be positive; it can’t be about what’s negative or what’s going away.

People mentioned having a hostage feeling. No one likes that; people like to feel positive.

I think the economy did play a part of it. You look at the last tax levy, in 2003 — it passed, but it passed by 53 percent. That’s not very much. Is it a tax levy or a bond? That makes a difference. Levies pass, but 53 percent is a low number.

Before 1998, into the 1980s, Columbia passed tax levies with around 60 or 70 percent voting “yes.” Since, Columbia has passed tax levies with around 52 or 53 percent voting “yes.”

And bonds are easier to pass — people are always more likely to vote for bonds because they’re not going to raise your taxes.

In spite of all that, I did not come away from the election feeling that Columbia as a community doesn’t value education. One of the things back in 1999, when CPS was advocating for the levy, we talked about public education being an asset. It’s no accident that we’ve had success with tax issues in Columbia because the community does value education.

Believing that the community does value education makes me optimistic that a levy will pass in the future. We must do a better job of making clear what people get from it and do a better job of explaining and have community people advocating for it. ... If all of those things happen, I’m confident that the community will again demonstrate its support for education by passing a tax levy.

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