GEORGE KENNEDY: Columbia has a chance to save public schools

Thursday, March 15, 2012 | 6:33 p.m. CDT; updated 8:19 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Friends Room of the public library lived up to its name Tuesday night. The good citizens who filled it were treated to two hours of local politics with not a single harsh word uttered.

After listening to the candidates for our School Board and City Council, I walked home thinking that we’re truly fortunate to have candidates who are not only well-qualified but capable of something that is sadly out of fashion at the state and national levels. That is the ability and the inclination to disagree without being disagreeable.

The other impression I carried away was that the most important item on the April 3 ballot won’t be any of those three races. It’ll be a pair of tax increases for our public schools.

Before he took center stage, School Superintendent Chris Belcher told me he estimates that he has made his pitch for the increases 150 times so far. All that practice showed. I’d be surprised if any of us left the room in doubt about the need.

The combination of a growing community and declining state support leaves us, Supt. Belcher said, “at a tipping point.” The state’s foundation formula is underfunded by $400 million. Our school system has, over the past four years, cut more than $20 million from the budget and has lost 250 positions. Meanwhile, he said, enrollment has increased by 1,500 in the past decade. Another 1,000 students are expected over the five years to come.

“The low-hanging fruit is gone,” he said. This vote will answer the question of “what kind of quality schools we really want.”

On the ballot will be two propositions, each carrying a small tax increase.

One proposes an increase of 40 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. The $8 million or so that would produce would be directed to three broad goals:

  • $4 million to close the gap between revenue and the expense of teaching almost 18,000 pupils;
  • $2 million to fill 30 of the positions that have been cut;
  • $2 million for catching up with the latest technology.

The other proposition would raise the levy by another 12 cents per $100 valuation to support a $50 million bond issue. The biggest slice of that money would pay for new construction:

  • $20 million for a new 650-student elementary school in south Columbia;
  • $8 million for an early childhood learning center, serving 4-year-olds;
  • $5 million to enlarge Shepard Boulevard Elementary, eliminating 12 trailers;
  • $4 million to enlarge West Boulevard Elementary, replacing another six trailers;
  • $2.2 million for a kitchen expansion at Lange Middle School to serve nearby schools.

Another $8.8 million would go to catching up with deferred maintenance at the district’s 34 school buildings, more than half of them at least 40 years old.

Did you realize that our schools now try to educate about a quarter of our kids in 153 trailers? That’s the most of any school system in the state. Supt. Belcher and the board intend to get rid of them. The new Battle High School will replace 50, he said.

In answer to one question, the superintendent explained that the expansion of the administration building on West Worley Street is being paid for with a $7.8 million loan from two local banks. It will save $15,000 a year in rent and $70,000 in utility costs.

In answer to another, he noted that Columbia has eight of the 28 schools statewide that have won the Energy Star designation for their efficiency.

The cost of these two proposed increases to us homeowners will be $98.76 a year for a house assessed at $100,000 and $197.60 for one assessed at $200,000.

State law dictates that the bond issue proposal requires approval by 57 percent of those who vote. The other requires a simple majority.

“It’s your decision,” Supt. Belcher reminded us.

In a town that’s built on education, this decision is an easy one for me.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Michael Williams March 15, 2012 | 6:40 p.m.

I will be voting "no". Our school system is not making the changes in educational strategies I wish to see. I've posted those ideas elsewhere and won't reprint them here. You can look 'em up.

We have adopted the "more money solves everything" mentality for decades and for many things, education among them. I see no significant progress and, in the case of education, have seen what I perceive as a regression.

There needs to be change, and you need my vote. You first.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin March 15, 2012 | 8:16 p.m.

At some point, CPS officials have to stop functioning like a dysfunctional family, promising to solve the same problems every two years, when there's a tax or bond increase at issue.

Every two years, admins promise to get rid of trailers; increase teacher salaries; offset huge losses to the state funding formula; and otherwise stop the sky from falling.

And every year -- except the year Phyllis Chase was let go -- the local press circles the wagon and exclaims we need to Vote Yes! once again.

Debt or Decay, the Trib cried -- in 2002

And in 2004: "Down the hall are about a dozen students in a gifted class behind a door labeled “Sprinkler Valve Control Room.” Their lessons take place against the background rumble of a boiler."

We passed the largest bond issue in state history back in 2010: $120 million; and $60 million just before that, in 2007.

What do we get for that? Groups like REDI endorsing the tax levy and bond increase, while their chairman gets a big CPS contract:

Meanwhile, CPS builds an $8 million admin addition without so much as any voter input, and finds itself spending millions more on infrastructure for big developers out near Battle High.

This every two years debt hike spiral is just insane, with tax increases close behind. Our schools need a break. We need a break.

Tell Mr. Griggs and the boys to drop their prices -- for land, buildings, construction, etc. Ask them to step up and help out for once. Enough leaning on the little people.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield March 16, 2012 | 3:00 p.m.

If you're the parent of a CPS student, you should be required to pay the difference between the schools portion of your property taxes and the average amount that the district spends to educate each student. Don't complain. For one, other residents still would paying a grand or more each toward schools. For another, you already get an income tax break for each child.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin March 16, 2012 | 3:51 p.m.


(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield March 16, 2012 | 4:02 p.m.

Let's say that $1,000 of your property taxes goes to CPS, and you have one child in school. The district spends an average of ~$9,300 per student. That $8,300 has to come from everyone else.

How many parents pay in schools-directed property taxes what the district spends on their children? You'd probably have to have a house worth at least $750K to be paying anywhere near $9K in schools-directed property taxes.

(Report Comment)

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