Columbia School District should use surplus to pay teachers

Saturday, June 14, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:35 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

LONDON — I missed the Columbia School Board’s sessions Thursday that gave the public a chance to comment on what appears to be two possible budgets for next year. From a safe distance, though, I can’t help weighing in.

Even the hardest-hearted critic must feel some sympathy for those good people we’ve elected to watch over the education of our community’s children. They’re buffeted from all sides by conflicting opinions, some more solidly based in reality than others. They get frequent budget updates from administrators, shifting the fiscal ground under their feet. And they must still be stinging — most of them — from the results of the last election.

Now, as I understand it from reading the Missourian and the Columbia Daily Tribune and trying to make sense of the budget posted on the district Web Site, the board faces distinct and undesirable alternatives. One is to use the $2.2 million that was left over in this year’s budget to operate the salary schedule and be prepared to dip into the reserve fund next year. The other is to stay on course, effectively cut teachers’ (and other employees’) salaries and be “fiscally responsible.”

Board Vice President Steve Calloway says the first alternative gives him “a little bit of heartburn.” Considering the slap the voters delivered in April, I’d have expected more of an ulcer. On the other side, newly elected Ines Segert seems to think the reserve is too big anyway, the budgeting is too conservative and the obligation to teachers should be met. Michelle Gadbois, who was the board outsider and is now its president, shows no sign of enjoying the leadership role. How could she?

If I were on the board, and we can all rejoice that I’m not, I’d be inclined to spend the money, pay the teachers and others what they’re owed — morally if not legally — and dip into what looks from here like an awfully generous reserve. At this point, nearly all school district employees are looking at what is really a pay cut for next year. That’s just intolerable, it seems to me.

But wait a minute. I can already hear the critics pounding on the doors of 1818 W. Worley St. I can also see that this would be a strongly implied rebuke to the school administration, especially Superintendent Phyllis Chase. If we really can afford to meet our commitments, why the big tax increase proposal? And what does that say about budgetary competence? Maybe Dr. Chase should take that pay cut even if the teachers don’t.

The other choice is more likely to satisfy, or at least stave off, some of the critics. It would be more responsible, in their eyes. If I were on the board, though, I’d have a hard time facing teachers and janitors, knowing I’d cut their pay and knowing we have more than $20 million in the bank. We can’t cut our way to success.

In the long run, of course, the board and Dr. Chase need to build on their new commitment to openness, connect with the public and convince us that our schools need more money. I wish them good luck with that.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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