Columbia Board of Education discusses budget cuts, school improvements

Thursday, May 20, 2010 | 4:27 p.m. CDT; updated 9:44 a.m. CDT, Friday, May 21, 2010

*CORRECTION: The Columbia School Board plans to cut 79 full-time equivalent
positions for the 2010-2011 school year. Last year, it cut 71 full-time equivalent positions. An earlier version of this story gave incorrect numbers.

COLUMBIA — Over coffee and a hot meal, the Columbia Board of Education and district administrators discussed multimillion dollar budget cuts, staff eliminations and long-term school improvement plans.

At a special session Thursday morning, the board reviewed more than $5.6 million in proposed budget reductions for the 2010-11 school year. Although the cuts could reduce district personnel, increase individual workloads and change certain programs, administrators said they don't expect the cuts to have a dramatic impact.

Last year, the districts budget was $202 million, according to the 2009-10 budget posted on the district's website.

Administrators and board members also discussed the district's Comprehensive School Improvement Plan. Members called for greater specificity in the plan's strategies and objectives.

The board made plans to further discuss these issues in committees and at its regular meeting on June 15.

District cuts

After a period of what members called painful decision making, the board has finalized a draft of its 2010-11 budget for the school district. Linda Quinley, the district's chief financial officer, led the board in its discussion of proposed cuts to funding and personnel in the upcoming school year.

The draft budget cuts $5.6 million from the district's budget; the bulk of the reduction comes from the elimination of 79 employees*, saving the district $4 million. Quinley said personnel cuts would be spread across the district and across all levels of education.

Multimillion dollar budget reductions aren't unusual for the district: Last year, the board cut $4.3 million and 71 staff positions*.

Superintendent Chris Belcher assured board members that this year's cuts would not dramatically increase class sizes.

"We should stay within a comfortable range," Belcher said, adding that he doesn't expect classes to exceed maximum numbers set by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

If class size becomes an issue, the budget allows for the hiring of five additional employees — three at the elementary level and two at the secondary level — later in the summer, Quinley said.

Other cuts could be made to middle school athletics, elementary school choirs and services and supplies. Quinley and district administrators emphasized that the programs will most likely not be eliminated but instead re-evaluated and redesigned.

The middle school athletics program, for example, could eliminate competitive sports in favor of intramurals. This could cut approximately $34,000 from the district's budget by eliminating the need for transportation, game officials and uniforms, administrator Wanda Brown said.

After outlining the cuts, Quinley pointed to a few bright spots in the budget. She indicated a possible excess of as much as $3 million in the budget.

"It's important to have because we're probably going to experience some of the same things midyear as we did this year," she said. "It's great if we're able to get ahead of that."

Belcher was also optimistic about how the budget positions the district for the upcoming school year and future reduction needs.

"We could even get a year off next year," he said.

The budget might allow for summer school at every elementary school, Quinley said; she said she expects the program to have a net zero cost for the district.

The draft budget will ideally be voted on at the board's June, Quinley said.

Quinley and administrator Nickolas Boren will host a public information session about the budget on June 10 at the Administration Building, 1818 W. Worley St. The meeting, which begins at 6 p.m., might be televised.

Strategic planning

The board also reviewed the progress of its Comprehensive School Improvement Plan, a five-year strategic plan created in 2009 to address areas of student performance, highly qualified staff, facilities, instructor resources and support strategies, governance, and parent and community involvement.

The discussion, led by administrator Sally Lyon, stalled over issues of student performance and highly qualified staff.

Board member Ines Segert voiced concern for the vagueness of strategies linked to the plan's vast goals.

Segert, who referred to herself as a pessimist and a cynic, said she is also worried about the institutionalization of rhetoric unsupported by research.

"(The plan) sounds great, but it's very vague," she said.

Lyon welcomed further clarification from committees, but said it's difficult to be too specific in long-range planning.

"We can't predict every innovative plan we might want to implement over the next five years," she said. "We can't foresee every technology that might become available or how our staff might decide to use it."

Belcher agreed that the issues of student performance and highly qualified staff are "broad and open-ended" and will probably yield a lot of discussion by board members and district staff.

He said it's important to have enough of the plan resolved by the June board meeting in order to align grant funding. The board will still be able to debate the plan's more nuanced issues.

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