School board approves a budget with 5-1 vote

Friday, June 20, 2008 | 12:18 a.m. CDT; updated 4:54 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — In a 5-1 vote, the Columbia School Board approved a budget Thursday night for the 2008-2009 school year that will not fund regularly scheduled salary increases for district employees next year.

In that budget, one of four considered, the $2 million that would have gone toward salary increases now may be used elsewhere. Board member Ines Segert said she isn’t sure where the money will be used, but “it could possibly go into capital projects.” The $2 million came from late taxes and district funds left over from the 2007-2008 school year. In May, the school board voted to cut all employees’ pay by two days. The budget approved Thursday gives that pay back.

The approved budget also maintains previously set budget parameters, may increase borrowing and reduces the district’s ability to find additional money for unexpected costs.

This budget, Budget C, will put the district into debt after the 2012-2013 school year without a tax levy increase.

The scheduled pay increases for employees will recommence in 2009-2010 at a forecasted cost of about $2 million, according to district documents.

Even though most district employees are affected by this budget plan, few attended the meeting, despite full crowds at prior meetings to discuss the budget. The pouring rain outside reflected the mood of the room.

The dissenting vote on the seven-member board came from Jan Mees; her objection was to Budget C, not against operating the salary schedule. Newly elected board member Rosie Tippin was absent.

The critical vote comes after months of debate, some of it wrenching, about the district’s economic future. Months ago, the district decided it had to seriously rein in spending to live within its streams of revenue. The board cut more than $5 million from next year’s budget, with the hope that voters would approve a 54-cent tax levy increase in April. But voters said no, and the district returned to the cutting board.

Another shift in the process occurred when it became clear that $2 million would be available for next year’s budget, the result of late tax payments from Columbia citizens and money left over from the current budget. The board held a series of listening sessions to get public input on the budget, but those meetings recently have been dominated by discussion about what to do with the extra money. Only one plan, Budget B, would have used the money to maintain the employees’ salary schedule for the 2008-2009 school year.

On Wednesday, Superintendent Phyllis Chase recommended against funding the salary schedule. In a letter posted on the district’s Web site, Chase wrote, “Long term fiscal responsibility requires prudent monitoring.” She wrote that not funding scheduled pay increases for district employees would help the district avoid the possibility of future debt.

At a press conference before Thursday’s board meeting, Chase said she would take a 10-percent pay cut of $20,034. She previously announced to the board that she would take a voluntary pay cut, but the board held off bringing it up in public discussion until the last minute to “make sure it was what she really wanted to do,” board President Michelle Gadbois said.

At the June board meeting, the Columbia Missouri National Education Association proposed an addendum to add to teacher contracts that would require the district to make a separate contract with teachers if the district has extra money.

Thursday night, the board unanimously approved the addendum, meaning that if money is left over, teachers will have the option to sign an additional contract with the district that may require them to work an extra day or attend a certain activity in order to receive extra money, said Mary Laffey, assistant superintendent of Human Resources.

Approximately $10 million will be cut from the 2008-2009 school year budget, which will also reduce almost 84 full-time equivalent jobs.

Missourian reporter Evan Hamilton contributed to this report.

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