COLUMBIA — Leaders in Columbia Public Schools say it's the best time to build schools, but budget cuts in the past year have some community members concerned about how these buildings will be funded later.
The Columbia School Board voted unanimously to put the $120 million school bond issue on the April 6 ballot, which proposes a $138 million plan for new construction, renovations and technology improvements (including $18 million from the 2007 bond issue).
Here are summaries of concerns on both sides:
If it passes:
Columbia Council PTA President Kim Weber is concerned opponents of the bond issue are uninformed about where the funding is coming from.
"I just don't think people understand the basic facts about bond issues," Weber said. "It won't raise your taxes."
Linda Dellsperger, who described herself as a concerned citizen, is aware that approval of the bond issue wouldn't immediately increase taxes. But she is worried about future funding to run the proposed new high school and elementary school.
"Everybody thinks this bond is going to pass and that there won’t be any raise in taxes. But I think we are kidding ourselves if we think that’s true," Dellsperger said. “If they are making all these cuts right now and then they are going to open up two new schools, there certainly won't be enough operational money when those buildings open.”
The district says a five-year budget model was developed to prepare for the opening of the high school in 2013.
"We have budgeted for a very flat economy," School Board member Christine King said.
Superintendent Chris Belcher said the district is building budget reserves in order to have enough money to fund operation of the high school, for which property has been purchased in northeast Columbia. Belcher said building the reserves has, among other efficiencies, included using one-time stimulus funds on current operating costs while placing local tax money that would've been used for these purposes into reserves for future use.
MU chemistry professor John McCormick, a former member of the High School Site Evaluation Committee, said that although he appreciates board members' work, he is deeply disappointed they put the bond issue on the ballot.
"If we’ve already approved our tax dollars to build buildings and fund busing, I’m afraid our tax district voters will turn down additional funding that we are going to need to support teachers and teaching," McCormick said.
Part of the proposed bond issue is aimed at decreasing the number of transitions for students — that is, how many times they change schools. Junior highs will be phased out, then kindergarten through fifth grade will be elementary school, sixth through eighth grades will be middle school and ninth through 12th grades will be high school.
Shelley Morris, a Grant Elementary School parent, said she is concerned about how the new high school would be staffed.
The district plans to transfer teachers from existing schools. Said Belcher: "We know we are going to re-shift our secondary staff and put some of the freshman teachers in the high schools and our middle schools would become smaller, but we will have to add principals, counselors and custodians."
He said a predicted growth in enrollment will increase the amount of money available to hire teachers. "With every new student we get, a certain amount of money follows that student," he said. "The state gives us money for attendance. So if you grow 30 students, that's probably enough to grow a teacher without having much cost."
McCormick said he worried money could be taken away from some of the district's strongest programs to help fund the basic operation of new facilities.
"There’s maybe some concern about the current facilities in the high schools, but they are turning out outstanding students with the current buildings and facilities, and it’s because they have wonderful programs that we can afford to fund," McCormick said.
Belcher said there are no current plans to cut programs. "However, that is based on the assumption that the state money will at least stabilize," he said. "If they give us another year of radical cuts, we're just going to have to look at that when we come to it."
If it doesn't pass:
The current enrollment in Columbia Public Schools is 17,419 students, and the district says another 1,000 are projected to enroll over the next five years.
A new high school and new elementary school will not be built if the bond issue doesn't pass.
"If we don't get this passed, we will simply have more trailers — we have 164 now,— and we will shove more kids in the existing classrooms we have," Belcher said. "The kids will come, regardless of the economy."
Amy LaHue, who has two children at Paxton Keeley Elementary School, said, "We need to get this high school built. I think we will be experiencing overcrowding. We are fortunate that at Paxton Keeley it isn't effecting us yet, but it's not going to take long until it does effect us."
Grant Principal Beverly Borduin was concerned about the limitations of student involvement in sports and other activities in large schools.
"If you have smaller schools, you have more opportunities for students to participate," Borduin said. She said the situation is also better for involving parents.
Jack Jensen, assistant superintendent for elementary education, said funds would have to be taken from the operating budget to fund necessary maintenance and improvements throughout the district if the bond doesn't pass.
"Bond issues and operating levies are separate," Belcher said, explaining that bonds can only pay for construction and upkeep costs, not salaries, benefits or supplies.
McCormick doesn't see a problem with the current state of the facilities.
"We have a lot to be proud of, our programs are working very well. The facilities we have are perfectly adequate," McCormick said. "We don’t need a new building to turn out stellar students. We really are right now. But we need to continue to fund our teachers and our teaching programs."
Both Jensen and Belcher have reiterated that the economic climate is positive for building and bonds.
"This project could do some incredible things for the community," Jensen said.
Mike Brooks, president of Regional Economic Development Inc., said that, based on a program from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the amount of money from the bond infused into the economy could produce an estimated 1,644 jobs over the three or four years of construction. Although the program isn't an exact science, it estimates that about 50 percent of those jobs would be in construction, about 10 percent in retail and the rest in a variety of fields such as food service, health care, hotels and more.
Brooks said that Belcher asked REDI to examine how $120 million in construction spending would affect the community. The results weren't as accurate as they could have been because $97.5 million, not the full amount of the bond issue, would be spent on construction.
McCormick said the new construction is unreasonable because of the district's and state's current financial problems that could carry into the future.
"We can’t expect to have enough dollars to compensate teachers adequately, fund teaching adequately and pay for a brand-new building," McCormick said. "It’s going to saddle our school district forever with expenses that we really can’t afford."