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.