Columbia school system's stakeholders must be included in continuing conversation

Saturday, June 28, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:48 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

LONDON — We’re all familiar with the famous First Rule of Holes: When you find yourself in one, stop digging.

From this distance, it appears that the Columbia school board was acting on that bit of folk wisdom last week when it adopted a budget that satisfies no one.

Teachers can’t be happy with no raises, though at least there won’t be the actual reduction that had seemed likely. Superintendent Chase is left to contemplate her self-imposed $20,000 pay cut. Fiscal purists will bemoan the decision to spend instead of saving the $2 million or so that unexpectedly turned up at the last minute. And taxpayers are warned that an increase is inevitably just over the horizon.

While Dr. Chase and board members lean on their shovels, it’s as good a time as any to ask the question that follows any major excavation. Now what? Now how do we — because, really, we Columbians are all in this together — climb out of this pit of poor public relations and inadequate funding?

At least board members, now led by Michelle Gadbois and stimulated if not irritated by new member Ines Segert, seem to have learned that all the school system’s stakeholders must be included in a continuing conversation. The debacle that was the April tax vote taught that lesson. It was one absorbed better late than never.

A more difficult problem is the substance of the public conversation. Tom Rose, my favorite veterinarian, demonstrated the difficulty at the last board meeting when he lamented the failure to find more dollars that could have been shifted to the core teacher-pupil mission from the vast and growing array of ancillary costs.

It was a failure by both administrators and the board itself. It was the failure that, probably more than anything, led to the defeat of the tax increase proposal and that certainly earned Superintendent Chase her pay cut.

Dr. Rose’s remorse came, as he noted, too late for this year’s budget decision. But it’s not too early to begin line-by-line scrutiny for next year.

I’ll risk belaboring the obvious by suggesting that the guideline for budget review should be that the farther from the classroom, the less essential the expenditure. So teachers and classroom supplies take first priority; central office administrators and extra-curricular activities lower importance.

When times are good and money flows, the dedicated amateurs we elect to school boards and city councils can afford to accept the guidance of the hired professionals. That has been the case for most of the 30-plus years I’ve been in Columbia.

No more. Now we’re asking more from our schools than we’re willing to pay for. Now the burden falls to the board. If we’re going to be asked to pony up for the education we demand, board members are going to have to ask in timelier fashion the kinds of questions Tom Rose raised belatedly.

My guess is that Columbia’s citizens can be convinced of the need for more money for our schools. Our history shows that’s the case. There’s a lot more spadework to be done, though, before the hole is filled.

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

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