School Board postpones presentation of full budget draft for upcoming school year

Tuesday, June 10, 2008 | 1:32 a.m. CDT; updated 12:42 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Columbia School Board members faced two plans for the first draft of the budget for the 2008-2009 school year, instead of a completed draft as expected, at their meeting Monday night.

The meeting was standing room only as concerned parents, teachers and Missouri National Education Association members showed up to voice their opinion on the proposed budget. The most anticipated topic of the evening was Superintendent Phyllis Chase’s voluntary pay cut, but the discussion of her salary was postponed to a later date.

The two plans proposed for the board outlined two budget scenarios: one operating on a salary schedule and one not.

Plan A reduces borrowing needs, delays the need for a tax levy increase, allows for unexpected budget fluctuations and maintains two full months of expenditures in the bank. The disadvantage of this program is that it reduces the level of competition for teacher salaries.

Plan B maintains the current salary schedule. Some disadvantages of plan B are that, if renewed, the district will be insolvent in the fourth year; it will have to borrow more money; and it will need a tax levy increase sooner. Plan B does not leave room for unexpected expenses.

Board member Tom Rose asked his fellow board members for a commitment.

“If we say as a board, ‘yes, we want to operate the salary schedule,’ we need to commit ourselves to do everything we can do to have a levy increase pass,” Rose said. “The challenge is that there is a disconnect with what the community, and what many, if not most, of the teachers, thinks contributes to increasing student achievement.”

The personnel recommendations on the agenda were questioned by board member Ines Segert who was concerned that administrative positions were being filled while teaching positions remain vacant.

“At this time, as we are in a lot of financial difficulty, is it a good idea to fill (administrative) positions when teacher positions are open?” Segert asked.

Chase clarified that there are vacancies at the central office level that have not been filled.

Before discussing the budget, the board made time for public comment. Among the six who commented, Nick Kremer, a first-year teacher at Oakland Junior High School, presented a proposal of how to more efficiently operate the salary schedule of teachers for next year.

Later in the meeting, Linda Quinley, director of business for Columbia Public Schools, said she wanted to sit down with Kremer and review her proposed numbers with him.

The budget has incurred additional financial stress because value assessments of property in the district did not increase as expected. Assistant Superintendent Jack Jensen said the value assessments of property — 3.5 percent for the 2008-2009 school year — was an “extremely conservative number.” The board expected the valuation to meet that at a minimum and had estimated a maximum of 4.5 percent. The additional revenue would have gone toward pay increases for employees.

In actuality, the total value assessment of property is only 3.14 percent, Jensen said, meaning the district will be getting $400,000 less than anticipated from property taxes.

Segert said that declining home values have decreased the amount of money expected to go to schools. Board members also added that personal property is a lot harder to assess because people are slower to report it. The most important thing for the board to do now is look ahead.

“It is damaging sometimes in not acting,” President Michelle Gadbois said. “Our dialogue with our community suggests if these monies are here, we go forward. In supporting our community this way, they will support us in the future. If we are willing to put what is wrong with one another behind us, we can get on with this.”

The board was updated on the Eco Schoolhouse at Grant Elementary.

“The entire project team recognizes that the number one challenge the human race is facing is sustainability,” said Nick Peckham, an architect with Peckham and Wright Architects.

The project’s goal is to not only provide a new structure to replace a trailer classroom burned out last year but also to teach ecological responsibility.

The motto of the project is, “Everything you do for children counts double.” After a short film that included responses from Grant Principal Beverly Borduin, students, teachers and parents, Gadbois thanked Peckham for his hard work and commitment to the school district and the community.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Gadbois said. “This is very heartfelt, and we cannot wait to see it.”

The new structure is scheduled to be completed in early August.

Updated plans for the new high school were also presented at the meeting. The sustainable and energy-efficient design will seek to “make sure the first phase is functional but also show the promise of the building,” said Wanda Brown, assistant superintendent for secondary education. The school will encourage collaboration between teachers and students and offer varied instructional and learning options.

The board also announced changes in the location of the visitor parking lot and administrative offices, as well as the fine arts center.

“Decreasing the number of transitions for our students is the right thing to do to increase student achievement,” Brown said.

Roughly 30 policy changes for the district were also up for discussion. The board focused on several of the changes, specifically the current cell-phone-use policy and the disciplinary actions attached to it. The decision on this policy was delayed so the board could get feedback on the current role of cell phones in secondary schools.

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