Difficult revenue decisions ahead for Columbia School Board

Monday, May 9, 2011 | 11:24 p.m. CDT; updated 4:35 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 10, 2011

*State funding for Columbia Public Schools is not going to be eliminated; it is declining. An article on page 1A Tuesday incorrectly referred to the absence of state funds as a reason for reorganizing programs.

COLUMBIA — As enrollment and class sizes increase in the face of expected *declines in state and federal funding over the next few years, the Columbia School Board addressed ways to close the gap at Monday's meeting.

Funding limitations and class sizes

Superintendent Chris Belcher made a presentation about the future of the district's budget, suggesting the board attempt to develop other revenue sources. Otherwise the district will need to reorganize programs to make do with the current budget.

"We either have to look at radical and significant program changes and reductions," Belcher said, "or we will have to have a discussion about adding revenue from a local source."

Since the 2009-10 school year, the state has cut or withheld $5.6 million from the district's budget, $4.5 million of that from this year, 2010-11.

"The rainy day hits in 2012-13," Belcher said.

He said the district administration has been lobbying for solutions at the state level to increase revenue. Such solutions include raising sin taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, for example, and imposing an Internet sales tax. But Belcher said the administration is having little success.

"At this point, the state budget looks bleak," Belcher said. "Since that is 33 percent of our funding, that is significant."

The district is growing at a rate of about 1.5 to 2 percent each year, and Belcher estimated that by 2015-16, the district might enroll an additional 1,200 students.

Board member Jim Whitt said he was concerned about how an increase in class sizes would affect student performance.

"This is an example of our budget driving our programs instead of our programs driving our budget," Whitt said. "We're letting our budget drive our plans for the future."

It would cost the district approximately $4 million to bring class sizes to desired levels.

Belcher told the board there needs to be a discussion about whether a property tax levy is a possibility to increase revenue.

Board member Helen Wade asked for an approximation of what a future levy could look like. Belcher said a 60-cent levy would likely be the minimum; 40 cents would just "slow down your pain." Current tax is $4.05 per $100 assessed property valuation.

Board President Tom Rose said a levy might pose a cost to homeowners and small businesses, but ultimately it is a benefit to the community.

"As far as the households and businesses, and what taxes they are paying, it's helping them realize it's an economic investment," Rose said. "It's not just for what the kids are learning but for the community at large."

Belcher asked the board to consider giving the administration the authority to run at a deficit earlier than planned to alleviate the stress of large class sizes. He said $600,000 to $800,000 would cover the salaries of teachers at elementary schools with the highest need, including Mill Creekl, Alpha Hart Lewis, Shepard Boulevard, Grant and Midway Heights.

"In terms of that staffing, it would be a risk, a big financial risk," board member Jan Mees said. "Almost one I'd be willing to take to see that support for our students and teachers."

Chief Financial Officer Linda Quinley said she will present a draft of the estimated cost for Belcher's deficit spending proposal at the board's work session at 7:30 a.m. May 19 at the district administration building, 1818 W. Worley St.

Bonds, policy and budget amendments

The board unanimously approved the issuance of general obligation refunding and improvement bonds. The decision also approves awarding the sale of the bonds to the best bidder.

Jack Dillingham, bond counsel for the district and managing director with the firm Piper Jaffray, said the bonds were confirmed to be of high rating, which is attractive to bidders.

Savings from the bond refunding, which amounts to approximately $7 million, will go directly to capital projects, such as the building of Muriel Williams Battle High School.

"It's better than we thought it would be on the bond sales," Belcher said. "It's a celebration moment."

The board agreed to put off voting on a policy change that would allow the district's new safety and security director to carry a concealed firearm.

Current safety and security director Preston Bass will retire at the end of the school year, and former Columbia Police Officer John White will succeed him.

Deputy Superintendent Nick Boren said the approval of the concealed-carry measure would include a $16,000 increase to the budget for liability insurance. He said it would be a "wise move to provide that maximum protection for our students, faculty and staff throughout our district."

Board members said they were not ready to vote on the issue, and they will revisit it at the June board meeting.

The board finished up the meeting by approving amendments to the 2010-11 budget. Quinley said the amendments align the actual revenue to the projections for local, state and federal revenue.

The larger than planned bond sale also caused increases to the capital projects fund and debt service fund. The board passed the measure unanimously.

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Jimmy Bearfield May 10, 2011 | 9:45 a.m.

"Chris Belcher made a presentation about the future of the district's budget, suggesting the board attempt to develop another revenue source."

California is considering allowing school districts to impose an income tax on residents. If enacted, residents would have their income taxed thrice: by the feds, by the state and by their school district.

Here, as elsewhere, levy increases typically are sold along the lines of: "Well, it's only the cost of a cup of coffee. Is that really so much to pay for top-notch education?" But that spin ignores the fact that those increases add up and eventually can prompt some people to leave Columbia or not move here at all. If you think that scenario is far-fetched, look at states such as NY and NJ, where the school portion of property taxes has reached the point where it's not unusual to pay $5K-$15K on a $300K house. That's a major reason why so many people have bailed for NC, FL and TN.

Instead, CPS should cap taxes at their current rate and then have parents pay the difference between the school portion of their property tax and the annual cost of educating their child(ren). Parents who complain should reminded that, for example, they already receive federal tax breaks for their children and that non-parents are already paying a significant amount toward schools.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin May 10, 2011 | 1:18 p.m.

There shouldn't be any new taxes until pricey administrators and millionaire property tax cheats share the sacrifice, too.

The school board and superintendent have talked a lot about all the cuts they've made to teachers and programs.

But have they seriously considered reducing the many layers of expensive administrative overhead -- especially before threatening further cuts to teachers and programs?

District administrators and the school board are also talking about making the average home and business owner pay a hefty jump in property taxes.

But have they ever seriously discussed going after Boone County's many property tax cheats, many of whom are multimillionaires with enormous property holdings -- development land mis-characterized as farmland, for instance?

Especially during times like these, with dramatic price increases and record unemployment all around, we shouldn't have to keep paying and paying so that people at the top can keep taking and taking.

(Report Comment)

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