School Board hopes tax levy increase will balance budget, pay teachers

Friday, August 28, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — With the Columbia School Board’s approval of a 4.25-cent increase in the district's property tax levy, the board will be able to unfreeze part of its teacher salary schedule.

The measure passed at a Thursday morning board meeting by a 4-2 vote, with members Ines Segert and Michelle Pruitt dissenting. The increase raises the annual property taxes on a home valued at $100,000 by $8.08 per year. The district's total levy is now $4.7717 per $100 assessed valuation. The levy increase will balance the 2009-10 budget and allow the district to raise the salaries of teachers who have continued their own educations.

Under state law, the district could have raised the levy by as much as 8.28 cents. The 4.25-cent increase was one of four options district Superintendent Chris Belcher and director of business services Linda Quinley presented to the board and came with Quinley and Belcher’s recommendation.

According to the district’s salary schedule, teachers receive raises based on years of experience, known as steps, and additional hours of academic credit. For example, the salary schedule states that a teacher at Columbia Public Schools with seven years of experience, a master’s degree and 15 additional credits should make about $1,200 more than a teacher without those credits.

Mary Laffey, district assistant superintendent for human resources, said the district has not given teachers raises for advancing in salary schedule steps for the past two years, but it made a commitment in the 2008-09 budget to continue awarding raises to educators who have taken additional classes. Laffey said the district spent about $700,000 last year on these pay raises.

When creating the budget for this school year, however, the district found it could not operate any part of the salary schedule. The levy increase approved Thursday morning should cover the money needed to reinstate the educational credit.

Segert and Pruitt voted against the measure, and both said the district should work within its means rather than asking taxpayers for more money. Both emphasized that they supported funding the salary schedule but that they think the board should have made it a priority while creating the 2009-10 budget rather than asking for additional money after the fact.

“I’m very torn about this,” Pruitt said during board discussion. “I do appreciate the teachers that have spent a lot of time with the understanding that when they accomplish this, they would reap the benefits.” However, she added, she thinks the district should not be in a financial position in which it needs to ask taxpayers for more money simply to pay its teachers.

Segert echoed those sentiments after the meeting. “I was probably the strongest advocate for funding the teacher salary schedule (while creating the budget), but I think we need to do it during the budget process,” she said. “I think that we need to be more efficient in how we use the revenues that we have and not just come back and ask voters for more money when we need some additional funds.”

Few members of the public attended the 7:30 a.m. meeting. Susan McClintic, president of the Columbia Missouri National Education Association, Laura Sandstedt, president of the Columbia Public Schools Employee Organization, and Columbia parent Robin Hubbard spoke during the time set aside for public comment. McClintic and Sandstedt asked the board to reinstate the educational credit; Hubbard asked to the board to leave the tax rate unchanged.

Hubbard, a doctoral candidate at MU with two children at Lange Middle School, said board members must keep their eyes on larger goals and keep the current tax rate to inspire the confidence of Columbia taxpayers. There was a perception in the community, she said, that the board was trying to stifle public input on the measure. She said that although she did not think the board was trying to hide anything, they had to make a stronger outreach effort if they wanted to foster trust within the community.

“(The board) could have posted a notice a month ago on their Web site and gotten comments, or put out a news release,” Hubbard said. “They need to move into the 21st century. Even the White House has a number of places for people to comment. You don’t have to go to D.C. You don’t even have to go to a meeting.”

Board President Jan Mees was pleased with the outcome of the vote and the quality of the discussion at the meeting. She said the board was acting responsibly by not raising the tax rate to its maximum, and she was also happy the district would be able to honor educators who have invested in their own education. “I felt that we have fulfilled our promise in that regard,” Mees said.

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