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Columbia School Board estimates district cuts might include science program

Friday, February 5, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Columbia teacher Jona Toalson is in her third year as a member of Columbia Public Schools' fourth- and fifth-grade science specialists program. The fate of the program, which may be cut as part of the district's attempt to balance its budget for the next school year, is expected to be decided on Monday by the Columbia School Board.

Columbia schools Superintendent Chris Belcher said money from the state, which accounts for about 32 percent of the district's budget, is expected to decrease by 10 percent for the next school year.

Local funding based on assessed valuation of property makes up about 55 percent of the budget, Belcher said. Columbia School Board President Jan Mees said money from this source is not expected to increase from its current $93.58 million.

Based on these estimates, Belcher said there would be at least a $5 million reduction in the district's budget for next year. More than 70 full-time equivalent positions will be cut.

"It was a program that people put their hearts into," Toalson said of the science specialists program. She teaches science at Lee and Parkade elementary schools. She taught fourth and fifth grades for 14 years before that.

"Science is something that the kids have a natural curiosity for, and they have such enthusiasm," Toalson said.

Including Toalson, 11 specialists cover the 19 elementary schools in the district. Each specialist moves among several elementary schools, teaching science to fourth- and fifth-graders.

Joyce Miller, a parent of students at Fairview Elementary School and a former PTA president there, said she understands the reasoning behind the science program cuts but as a parent she thinks science is still an important area.

Toalson said that all of the specialists except one, who is taking a planned retirement, will be assigned new teaching positions at elementary, middle or secondary levels. Mees said the district is able to take the specialists back into classroom teaching positions mainly because of yearly attrition.

Mees said that if the cuts are approved, the specialists will finish out the current school year before reassignment.

Belcher said the district will not quit teaching science in fourth and fifth grades if the specialist program is cut. He said Columbia elementary schools will do "what 99 percent of other Missouri schools do," and ask the fourth- and fifth-grade classroom teachers to teach science.

Miller, who taught second through fifth grades for 10 years outside the Columbia district, said she is concerned about the amount of science content for fourth- and fifth-graders being much greater than it is in the preceding grades. “If cuts have to be made, they need to figure out how to help classroom teachers," Miller said.

Belcher said the School Board will discuss ways to provide appropriate prepping time for the classroom teachers to take on their new science teaching duty.

"It's hard not to take it personally. We're so devoted to this program," Toalson said about the proposed cuts. She said the specialists have pleaded their case and feel they were listened to.

The proposed cuts throughout the district total more than 70 full-time equivalent positions. The breakdown, from Mees, includes:

  • 10 clerical staff
  • 3.7 curriculum and instruction-related positions
  • 3 media specialists
  • 34 teaching, administration and support positions (22 at the secondary school level, 12 at the elementary level)
  • 7 special education positions
  • 2 elementary guidance counselor positions
  • 10.3 elementary science specialists

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