Columbia school leaders: Communication was key to school bond's success

Friday, April 9, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — School leaders and voters attribute the Columbia Public Schools bond issue's 77 percent approval rating to early and frequent communication with stakeholders throughout the city.

The vote on April 6 was 17,252 to 5,086 in favor of the bond issue, but only a 57 percent majority of the vote was needed to pass.

In mid-March, Lorenzo Lawson, founding director of the Youth Empowerment Zone, attended one of the district's nearly 130 presentations over a three-month period to school and community groups about the bond issue. Superintendent Chris Belcher made the presentation at the Youth Empowerment Zone.

At the presentation, Belcher explained that the bond issue would be used  to improve buildings, construct a high school and elementary school, build new gyms at Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools, improve technology, provide air conditioning and pay for interests and fees associated with this type of funding.

He also explained that the plan for a three-part bond issue, at $60 million each, was developed a few years ago after a report from the district's Long-Range Facilities Planning Committee said schools were impaired by crowding and needed repairs and trailers. Voters approved phase one in 2007. In 2009, interim Superintendent Jim Ritter recommended combining phases two and three into the $120 million bond issue.

Lawson said Belcher's presentation gave "a clear understanding of what you were voting for." 

Along with the information provided by Belcher, Lawson said his decision to vote "yes" on the issue was also influenced by op-eds written by school board members such as Jan Mees and the support shown by James Whitt in his campaign for his first three-year term on the board.

"I think we did a good job of explaining the bond issue and its purpose, and we went face-to-face with over 7,000 people and developed other ways to educate the population, and I think those built some trust," Belcher said. "We told the story well and hit the pavement."

Sarah Read, who was a Fourth Ward candidate and a Columbia Parents for Public Schools member, said the bond issue's approval could not be chalked up to communication alone. Rather, Read cited four factors that created a package "in terms of it being the right thing to do for kids, right thing to do for the community, the right thing to get the economy back on track" as well as an "underlying trust foundation."

In response to the 77 percent voter approval of the bond issue, School Board Vice President Tom Rose said, "The community is pleased with the progress we are making. I think it does show increased confidence in the decisions the board and administration are making."

Read said that the issue comes along with the board's developing relationships with the public. "It's how the community wants or expects to be communicated with and that has changed over time," she said. "The board has lagged somewhat in recent years with the changed needs of the community and they've now caught up. They've integrated pieces that have worked before and they have changed them, they've let them evolve."

Missourian reporter Katy Bergen contributed to this report.

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