When it comes to the Columbia Public Schools, I make no pretense of objectivity. I’m a fan, and not only because my three kids were well served at Blue Ridge, Oakland and Hickman. Our public schools, it seems to me, are the most important of our local institutions.
That’s why it has been so painful to watch the last couple of years as declining revenue and rising enrollment have squeezed out valuable services and personnel. That’s why the School Board session planned for 7:30 a.m. Thursday is so important. And that’s why we voters should approve the tax increase the board will almost certainly decide to ask for.
Columbians have been spoiled by the consistent high quality and low cost of our schools. For years, we’ve basked in the reflected glory of a steady flow of National Merit and Presidential scholars. We’ve prided ourselves on being a kind of real-life Lake Wobegon, where, if not all, nearly all the children were above average. When beloved superintendents Russell Thompson and Jim Ritter asked for modest tax increases, we approved.
Well, as you may have noticed, times have changed. The school population has changed; students’ needs have changed; state and federal expectations have changed. The dropout rate is too high, and test scores are too low. Meanwhile, state support has declined, and it’s about to fall off a cliff.
A few numbers tell the story: This year, 39 percent of the system’s 17,550 pupils are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. That’s a standard measure of poverty. Among black pupils, 78 percent are eligible; among Hispanics, 68 percent. At Benton Elementary, it’s 92 percent.
Poverty, of course, correlates inversely with academic achievement. In 2010, on the state-required MAP test, just 18 percent of black third-graders scored proficient or above in communication arts. For whites, the number was 55 percent. A third-grader who’s scoring below grade level is 13 times more likely to become a dropout.
The headline in Tuesday’s Missourian summarized, “Less money, more costs.” After reading that and scanning the numbers on the district website, I went to see Chris Belcher, who’ll be laying out the facts and the alternatives before his bosses on the School Board just after dawn Thursday.
He provided a few more numbers, along with some background.
While enrollment has grown by the equivalent of about 20 elementary classrooms since 2008, the staff has shrunk by 250 positions. State support, which accounts for about one-third of the local budget, has been reduced by $5.7 million over the past two years. The projection is that it will be cut by another $6.6 million in 2012-13, as federal stimulus money runs out and our notoriously tax-averse legislature refuses to respond.
Only three states fund education more cheaply that Missouri, and we seem to like it that way. Neither the Republican legislature nor our Democratic governor is willing even to consider raising our lowest-in-the nation cigarette or alcohol taxes.
How serious is the funding problem? Superintendent Belcher calculates that the district will need next year an additional $12.7 million just to meet needs already identified, such as providing early schooling to all the poor kids who need it, maintaining facilities and reducing class size to at least the level the state recommends. (Thirty-seven classrooms will have too many students next year.)
The choice is clear. As Superintendent Belcher told the board Monday night, “We either have to look at radical and significant program changes and reductions, or we will have to have a discussion about adding revenue from a local source.”
When I suggested that he was being a bit coy about a tax increase, he laughed.
My guess is that the laughter will stop when he recommends a 60-cent increase in the district’s operating levy. That would produce, he’ll tell the board, about $12.4 million. With that and drawing down the reserve that has been carefully accumulated, the schools can do what we expect, if not everything we’d like, for a few more years.
Chris Belcher is a smart guy. He understands that, as he told me, “there’s been no worse time in the last 20 years” to ask the public to vote for a higher tax. He’s keenly aware that three of the last five proposed tax hikes have been rejected at the polls.
The way I see it, he really has no choice but to try. Nor does the board.
The choice will be ours. That’s the way it should be in a democratic society. No public decision will be more important.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.