School board still struggles with cuts

Monday, May 12, 2008 | 11:52 p.m. CDT; updated 7:51 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — With more than 80 people overflowing the room at Monday night’s meeting, the Columbia Public School Board continued to debate the 2008-09 budget and listened to more than 25 comments from members of the public. The board must vote on how to cut an additional $5 million before the budget is finalized June 30.

When the board opened up the floor for public comment, almost 20 people who were waiting in the lobby poured into the room. Math and literacy coaches, beginner and veteran teachers, outreach counselors, two principals and parents all offered perspectives on what they think is vital to the success of Columbia students.

Ten parents of first-grade students at Midway Elementary School waited silently in the back of the room — wearing blue Midway shirts — until it was their turn for a three-minute public comment. Tanya Alberty, a mother of four, spoke on behalf of parents, and said they feared the effects of increasing classroom size.

“We feel strongly that increasing classroom size at the elementary level would affect their entire school career. If they don’t receive (individual attention) now, they will struggle to catch up,” she said.

Board member Ines Segert, who was first elected in April, compiled a spreadsheet that showed the possible effects of cutting one teacher from an elementary school. Midway currently has 53 first-grade students divided into three classrooms, but if one teacher is removed, class size increases from an average of 17 students to 26.

Several math and literacy coaches, as well as the teachers they work with, defended the coaching positions during public comment. Catherine Yoakum, a math coach, said she was not speaking to keep her job because she was protected under tenure but was instead motivated because she did not want the board to cut positions that had only been in the classroom for a year.

“I hope we don’t take steps backward now and we don’t eliminate these positions,” she said. “Let’s see what we can do that’s best for children.”

Some members of the audience were holding back tears when outreach counselors and parents shared anecdotes that explained why they thought counseling positions were important. Kelly Anderson, who has been an outreach counselor at Douglass High School for the past six years, shared a passage from a former student’s book that credits him — “a teddy bear” — with encouraging her to graduate from high school. The girl, who never thought she had a chance of graduating, is now a published author and a college graduate.

Paxton Keeley Principal Elaine Hassemer, who has worked for the district more than 20 years, said she spoke to address the public perception that budget cuts were made with little input from staff.

“We all feel passionate about our things but sacrifices will have to be made,” she said. “Board members should not bow to pressure. We are in the business of educating children, and they need to be our No. 1 focus.”

After about two hours of public comment, board member Jan Mees proposed that the members accept a draft of the budget reduction parameters given to them on May 6. All board members accepted Mees’ suggestion with the exception of Segert. An official draft of the budget will be presented at the June 9 board meeting, Superintendent Phyllis Chase said.

This was the third time the board has discussed budget cuts since voters rejected a 54-cent tax levy April 8 that would have brought $10 million to the district. Any cuts approved in the next month will be in addition to $5.23 million the board cut prior to the election.

After the budget discussion, the board unanimously approved the proposed boundaries for the new elementary school attendance areas after an hour-long presentation by the Elementary Enrollment Planning Committee chair, Don Ludwig.

The approved boundaries will affect Derby Ridge, Blue Ridge, Lee, Field, Shepard Boulevard, Cedar Ridge, Benton and Parkade elementary schools for the 2009-10 school year when the new elementary school in northeast Columbia opens.

Many months of research was done before finalizing the proposal. The committee looked at individual neighborhoods and held 60 committee meetings, on-site forums and community discussions. They also evaluated 70 different scenarios and held two forums at each elementary school to hear community members’ input.

“These forums were designed into the process to create tension between members of the committee and members of the community,” Ludwig said.

Cedar Ridge and Shepard schools are still above capacity, even with the new boundaries, due to growth in the area. “The need for a new school is absolutely evident because of that growth,” Ludwig said.

Board President Michelle Gadbois said she was pleased with the committee’s research. “You’ve given us a place to look at growth and where another school could go. It was nice to see that kind of projection into the future.”

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