School Board narrowly approves stimulus cash spending

Tuesday, August 11, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — After a closed executive meeting Monday night, the Columbia School Board decided to enter into negotiations for the purchase of the building at 4600 Bethel St.

"It's a facility designed and created for education," Superintendent Chris Belcher said.

He said the board thinks now is the time to purchase since the federal government has given the district stimulus money and commercial property rates are down.

The board will approve the final contract at a later date. The long-range facility committee will discuss potential uses for the building, which include early childhood education and special education.

Belcher said minor modifications, such as re-carpeting, will be made to the building, but otherwise it is in great shape.

In its regular meeting, the board narrowly approved the spending of $227,219 in stimulus funds allocated for special education purposes.

Mary Laffey, assistant superintendent for human resources, recommended the board approve the spending, which accounts for approximately 5.6 percent of the total stimulus funding Columbia Public Schools received for special education.

An additional $64,000 was added to the initial recommendation because of a government requirement called “proportional share,” which requires 1.6 percent of these stimulus funds to be allocated to private schools before distributed in other ways.

The rest of the money will pay for five psychological interns, the partial salary of a school resource officer at Bearfield School, increased assistance for vision-impaired students and two permanent substitute teachers for the special education department.

“Most of these are issues, we would have come to the board asking for money from the operating funds, but now we have stimulus funds,” Laffey said.

Board members disagreed about how positions and programs provided with stimulus money would fare in the long-term.

Board member Ines Segert suggested the board develop a comprehensive plan for spending the money before voting on the issue, but Laffey said the need for these services was immediate.

Board member Michelle Pruitt expressed concern about spending money on programs that weren't considered a necessity a month ago when the budget was passed.

Laffey pointed out that the district sometimes has trouble budgeting for special education because the department's evaluations are usually not completed until June.

She reminded the board that even without the available stimulus funding the board would still have to fund most of these issues immediately. These expenses would typically come out of the board’s operating budget, she said.

“As we approach the school year, there are always unanticipated needs for additional special education funding," member Christine King said. "Luckily, this year we have the cushion of stimulus funds.”

Belcher said he feared the board was getting caught up in the details; what he thought would be a 5-minute discussion turned into a 45-minute one. He expressed his support and said the board needed to trust the administration's recommendations.

At the end of the discussion, the board voted 4-3 in favor of the spending. Pruitt, Segert, and Jim Whitt voted against the spending.

In other business, the board discussed the upcoming process to develop the Comprehensive School Improvement Plan; the district's stakeholders will participate in this process over the next few months.

"This is a very, very important process to myself and the administration team because once you create this plan, these will be the marching orders for me and other (district) employees," Belcher said.

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Mike Sykuta August 11, 2009 | 10:11 a.m.

At least two board members have learned a lesson about budgeting long-term staff positions based on short-term money: think ahead.

If these positions would have been necessary regardless, then there is a problem in the budgeting and HR process overseen by Laffey...all HR evaluations should be completed in time for the budgeting process to avoid coming back for positions that are "necessary". It's not like the budget timeline is a surprise each year. Existing processes apparently need to be adjusted.

There's a fine line between getting to involved in the details and asking for good management processes. It seems this is another case of the details being meritorious, but the management process flawed. It seems Mr. Belcher just got his first taste of the consequences of past administrative shortcomings.

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