Mees and Belcher answer questions at "potpourri" session

Monday, March 15, 2010 | 5:27 p.m. CDT; updated 6:33 p.m. CDT, Monday, March 15, 2010

COLUMBIA — A group composed mostly of retirees learned more about Columbia Public Schools and the school bond issue Monday morning, thanks to an info "potpourri" session hosted by the MU Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Potpourri classes are so-named for the wide mix of topics that attendees get to learn about over the course of a semester.

The Osher Institute, a cooperative effort between MU Extension and the Bernard Osher Foundation, hosts courses aimed at adults, age 50 and older.

Columbia School Board President Jan Mees and Superintendent Chris Belcher presented a detailed snapshot of the district's financial and educational condition and fielded questions throughout the session. About 30 people were in the group, and questions revolved around topics such as public school alternatives in Columbia, student transportation and special education programs.

The district anticipates 1,000 additional students over the next five years, Mees said.

Larry Morehouse, a World War II veteran from Columbia, asked Mees how costly transportation was to the district. Transportation is the second biggest expense, she said. Belcher said the district provides transportation if a student lives within one mile of his or her school.

When asked if state funding for transportation is equal to what it costs the district to provide the service, Belcher said, "Absolutely not." The state provides a portion of the cost.

Belcher took a question from a Columbia retiree James C. Denninghoff about how many students might leave the district for public school alternatives, such as home schooling, the planned Catholic high school or the private Columbia Independent School. Belcher gave a rough estimate that 1,000 or more district students may eventually leave for these alternatives, although he gave no time frame for that figure.

The district wants to be a "partner in education" to the public school alternatives, Belcher said, and home schoolers are welcome to attend classes in Columbia Public Schools. He said they sometimes come to take a class that their parent or home schooling teacher does not feel qualified to instruct — high school physics, for example.

Belcher finished by talking about the district's need for the $120 million bond issue, which goes before voters on April 6. He emphasized that the bond issue does not increase taxes but extends the debt payoff time by about seven years. The time to final payoff is dependent on whether assessed valuation goes up, down or remains flat. He volunteered to speak to any group about the topic and referred to a recent MU study which showed that higher voter turnout correlated with higher student achievement.

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