COLUMBIA — The Columbia Public School District's $120 million bond issue and its potential economic impact on Columbia was the main discussion topic at a Thursday afternoon public school candidate forum hosted by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber of Commerce has endorsed the school bond issue, which will be decided by Columbia voters in the April 6 election. Candidates were asked to describe what passage of the bond might mean to the community.
Jan Mees: “The economic impact to our community will be instantaneous.” It will get many people to work, and the long-term effects range into the millions of dollars to Columbia, she said.
James Whitt: Whitt said his hope is that bids for construction work come in lower than first planned. The construction manager hired to oversee the work will divide the work up in such a way that smaller, local contractors will be able to compete more successfully in the bidding process.
Philip Peters: Peters said the bond issue was good for four reasons: It solves the district’s need for extra capacity, it is an economic stimulus to the city, current low interest rates make it favorable, and it does not add a new tax burden to citizens.
Jonathan Sessions: Sessions said the main impact of the bond issue was that students' educations will be improved by reducing overcrowding.
Dan Holt: Holt said there are many positive impacts, but one that many overlook is the image projected outside of the community. A reputation for supporting schools is a critical part of that image, Holt said.
The candidates were also asked how they would address negative perceptions about the district.
Sessions: Sessions emphasized the need for better communication tools. He said when people read news stories about the public schools, they might skip important details and ask things such as, “Why did you cut science out of the schools?”
Holt: “Negative perceptions do exist.” He said he has heard people say the district labels some groups of students and sets them aside from the rest. In reality, the district doesn't do that at all, he said.
Mees: Mees said a problem is that a majority of Columbians do not have family in Columbia Public Schools and may receive wrong or misleading information. The district has to be its own positive mouthpiece and correct misperceptions, she said.
Whitt: Whitt he thinks negative perceptions have decreased, and that Columbia Schools Superintendent Chris Belcher has had a lot to do with that. He said Belcher is called "The Great Communicator" and that maintaining a positive image in the public’s eyes is a continual process.
Peters: Peters said there are a lot of happy parents, but that people in Columbia have high expectations with regard to education. He said the board needs to know which perceptions represent valid concerns, for instance, financial responsibility and competency.