COLUMBIA — Voters overwhelmingly responded to Columbia Public Schools' call for improved facilities and two new schools, approving a $120 million bond issue by 77 percent.
"I feel elated and supported by the community," said Superintendent Chris Belcher, who was at Columbia School Board President Jan Mees' victory party at Jack's Gourmet Restaurant. "I feel a good deal of responsibility to deliver our product in an efficient manner, and I think our Board of Education will do that."
Celebrating his election to his first three-year term, James Whitt said he thinks that in the past year, the board has improved communications with the public.
"I think the public has more confidence in us, and that's why the bond issue is passing by such a high percentage," said Whitt, who has served as a one-year appointee.
The vote was 17,252 to 5,086 in favor of the bond issue, which will be used to finance construction, renovations and technology improvements. A 57 percent, or four-sevenths, majority was needed to pass.
This new bond issue combines two that had been conceived for 2011 and 2013 as part of a three-phase plan recommended several years ago to ease crowding, make needed repairs and cut down on the use of trailers. Part one, for $60 million, was approved in 2007. Last year, interim Superintendent Jim Ritter recommended the single $120 million bond issue, in part to get the new high school fully open earlier.
The $120 million will be combined with $18 million remaining from the 2007 bond issue to create a $138 million plan. The money is broken down in this way:
Belcher said earlier that construction on the high school, which will be located in the northeast part of the district off St. Charles Road, is scheduled to begin June 1, and other projects such as air conditioning, roofing and technology will begin on a varied basis per building need.
"I am encouraged and relieved that the community still wants to support our great public school system," Kim Weber, president of Columbia Council PTA, said Tuesday evening. "We are in tough times, but we have to support the school district by making tough choices."
Current enrollment in the district is 17,419 students, and another 1,000 are projected to enroll over the next five years.
"Don't you think we need (the bond issue)? Columbia is growing, and we're crowded as it is," retired teacher Don Sewell said early Tuesday after voting at Free Will Baptist Church. "Kids are controlling the classrooms."
The bond issue passed amid concerns from voters such as Gene Kingery, who is also retired.
"I don't want it," Kingery said after voting. "They're spending too much money that they don't have. When you spend money you don't have, taxes are going to go up. I was brought up that if you don't have it, you don't spend it."
Belcher has said that the money to operate the new buildings for at least a couple of years would come from the district's reserves, which have been deliberately grown in anticipation of new facilities.
Jonathan Sessions, who was elected to a one-year term on the Columbia School Board, said that with the bond issue passing, his priority is the new high school.
Belcher's schedule since January has included more than 80 appearances on behalf of the bond issue.
"It's good for the economy and it's a strong economic driver, which I think is needed," he said a few weeks ago. "But more importantly, it is good for the students and the educational program."