Columbians worried about school district budget cuts

Monday, February 9, 2009 | 10:53 p.m. CST; updated 11:04 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, March 11, 2009

COLUMBIA — Community members at the school board meeting Monday night expressed concerns about possible cuts to the budget and personnel.

The school board and the public discussed growing worries about the economy and its effect on the Columbia Public Schools' 2009-2010 budget. The primary frustration among attendees was possible job losses and how that would affect students.

2008-2009 budget parameters

  1. Given the current operating deficit, a fiscally responsible budget will be achieved by consideration of options for increased revenues and operating reductions.
  2. Should additional revenues not be secured by April 14, 2008, the Board of Education will implement budget reduction parameters to meet a 16-percent reserve balance.
  3. The district will consider recommendations of the recent employee compensation study in order to continue providing a competitive and just wage.
  4. Fully funded employee benefit programs will continue to be provided to eligible employees even though benefit costs continue to increase.
  5. In order to support financial stability and the current Moody’s Aa2 bond rating, the district will maintain a minimum operating reserve of at least 16 percent and 7 percent of expenditures in the general operating fund at June 30 and December 31 respectively.
  6.  The budget will continue to support a student-teacher ratio that meets or exceeds state standards.
  7.  The Columbia School District will continue to provide transportation exceeding state requirements.
  8. The budget will be prioritized and funded reflective of Board of Education goals:
  • Increase achievement for all students
  • Eliminate achievement disparities between groups of students
  • Maximize resource efficiency

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When it came time for public commentary during the meeting, citizens had much to say. Mill Creek Elementary art teacher Sally Froese came to the board meeting to voice her concerns about how money is being spent in the district.

“The Columbia Public Schools that I knew and most of you knew 20 years ago is not the Columbia Public Schools that we have right now,” Froese said. “I come here to beseech you to remember that our primary goal is the students themselves.”

Concerned parent Robin Hubbard voiced reservations about the impending personnel cuts.

“Your resources will tell you it's more expensive to rehire and hire than it is to maintain,” Hubbard said. She noted there are other ways to cut down on expenses and reallocate resources.

“When you see those cookies there, you probably think, ‘Oh, those are just cookies. Gourmet cookies cost $1.50 retail.' But what I see is a dozen pencils, a gross of bulk golf pencils, 2,500 bulk erasers, high-quality highlighters and marking pens,” Hubbard said. “These are the things that are on a teacher’s list that parents like me are out scrounging and digging out of their own pockets to help them.”

The board discussed the reality of potential budget reduction. In order to balance the budget and keep a 16-percent reserve, the board needs to cut $4.4 million, according to Interim Superintendent Jim Ritter. He explained the board’s reasoning behind voting against the tax levy and said it would be inappropriate to propose a levy during this economic time.

“It’s very difficult to talk about reduction without talking about people,” School Board Vice President Steve Calloway said. “Eighty-three percent of the budget represents people, so it’s hard not to put people first.”

Ritter reiterated there was not a program or position that wasn't examined. The board wants to remain “explanatory and transparent,” he said.

The board explained the new adjustments to the budget parameters. The changes include clarifying the board's goal to maintain the student-teacher ratio within the classroom so that it meets or exceeds state standards. Also, the wording about parameters concerning employee benefits was changed to “considering to fully fund” from “definitely fully funding,” said Linda Quinley, director of business services for Columbia Public Schools.

The board is seeking input from educational organizations about possible salary propositions. Columbia Missouri National Education Association will be holding a meeting Feb. 18 where the public can hear the organization's salary proposal and voice their questions relating to the issue. CMNEA promised to have open communication and to be transparent.

Results from the ongoing salary discussion will be announced Feb. 25. This meeting will be open to the public.

“We are not trying to hurry or press things along,” Calloway said. “We would like to have most of the work done earlier and sooner to take the mystery and concern out of it for the staff.”

The board and citizens agreed that the primary concern is for the students.

“Stressed families cause stressed children. Stressed children don’t learn,” Hubbard said.

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Ayn Rand February 10, 2009 | 11:57 a.m.

Maybe the budget could distributed in high school English classes as an exercise in editing poor grammar.

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