Sweet rolls, fruit and coffee were available for the taking at Thursday morning’s School Board work session. The real menu, though, was less appetizing.
Superintendent Chris Belcher’s PowerPoint presentation showed a budgetary future for our schools of expenses far outstripping revenue over the next five years, with the system’s savings account falling into the red in 2015-16.
If that revenue projection is accurate — and chief financial officer Linda Quinley suggested it may be slightly optimistic — the only alternatives for balancing the budget are grim. One possibility includes a salary freeze and requiring employees to pay more for their benefits. The other would eliminate pre-kindergarten and special education programs.
There’s another possibility, of course, and board members’ questions and comments suggested strongly that they’re headed in the direction of putting on next April’s ballot an increase of 60 cents in the operating levy.
They know it won’t be an easy sell. That’s why, though the deadline for putting the increase on the ballot isn’t until next January, they’re intent on starting the public conversation now.
Board members and administrators alike are keenly aware that the last time voters were asked to approve a school tax increase, in April 2008, the answer was a resounding No. That proposition attracted just 38 percent of the vote. (Board members and Superintendent Belcher no doubt recall that a few months after that defeat, Phyllis Chase announced her “retirement” as superintendent. The following spring, neither the board president nor vice president sought re-election.)
Thursday, Jim Whitt, having only recently been re-elected to the board, seemed to speak for his colleagues when he reminded them, “We’ve got to build up public trust. We’ve got to educate the public.”
Jan Mees, a battle-scarred veteran of that 2008 debacle, emphasized that this time, proponents of the increase must be clear and honest about just where the money will be spent. One big-ticket item will be especially important. That’s a reduction in class sizes.
The estimated $4 million to accomplish that, particularly in the beginning grades, makes up a major chunk of the $9.5 million in additional revenue Supt. Belcher calculates is needed if the district is to approach its aspiration to be the best in the state. That’s on top of the $12.7 million more that will be required just to meet continuing expenses.
Several board members noted that it will be essential to be able to demonstrate that they have done their “due diligence” by achieving every possible efficiency from every dollar. Supt. Belcher warned that already there’s been so much cutting in some areas, such as clerical staff, that efficiency is actually suffering rather than being enhanced.
There may still be a few figurative nickels and dimes to be saved, but the fact is that you really can’t do more with less. One way or another, the most efficient administrator winds up doing less with less. Already, our schools are spending less per pupil than the Missouri average, and only three states are more miserly in funding schools. Our teachers earn less than their peers across the country. That path is more likely to lead to the bottom than the top.
Soft-spoken Tom Rose, the board president, summed up the sentiment in the room. “I’m not afraid to say to the community that we’re going to come to you with a 60-cent levy.”
If your house is assessed at $100,000, that would cost you an extra $114 a year. I can’t think of a bigger bargain. It’s an investment in our future that we can’t afford not to make.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.