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Columbia Public Schools still playing catch-up with growth spurt

Thursday, April 18, 2013 | 3:39 p.m. CDT; updated 9:10 a.m. CDT, Monday, April 22, 2013
The commons area of Battle High School overlooks the football field which is located behind the school. Kim Presko, principal, joked that tickets could be sold to watch the football game from the cafeteria windows.

COLUMBIA — After a decade of continuous enrollment growth, Columbia Public Schools is faced with the challenge of improving and expanding its facilities to catch up, Superintendent Chris Belcher said.

From 2003 to 2013, the district grew from 16,447 students to 17,722 students. The largest growth period occurred from 2004 to 2007. In those three years, the district welcomed 501 new elementary students, according to the district’s enrollment charts.

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"It’s not overly radical growth, but it’s growth that is unusual," Belcher said. "The thing is, it takes you three to four years to plan, fund and build an elementary school. And so you’re always trying to look five years ahead."

Most of the growth can be traced to two hotspots of home construction in Columbia, Belcher said. One is the area between Mill Creek and Rock Bridge elementary schools to the south; the other is between Alpha Hart Lewis and Parkade elementary schools to the north.

Because elementary student enrollment shot up so fast, district spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said, a quick fix had to be made to avoid overcrowding the schools. Over the decade, the district purchased more than 150 trailers to serve as classrooms on almost every school campus.

"It’s crazily inefficient, and there are a lot of safety concerns in having them as well," she said. "You’ve got, especially at the elementary level, kids that have to come and go to go to the bathroom, come and go to go to the lunchroom. That’s just not the way we want to operate."

Belcher said the district needed a long-term solution to growth and a plan to get rid of the trailers. The solution is a timeline of school bond issues through 2020, Belcher said.

The plan features one bond issue every other year, with most of the money going toward building schools and repairing old ones.

"When we went out for our last bond issue we looked at, OK, this is where we’re going to be, and we’re going to be coming at you ever other year until we feel like we get to the point where were in a better manageable position," Baumstark said.

The first bond issue in the series was for $60 million and passed in April 2007. The second, for $120 million, passed in April 2010. The combined bond issues authorized the construction of Battle High School and a new elementary school.

"The growth came so fast, and we never had a breathing period," Belcher said. "We are behind, terribly behind, but the new high school is the first big step."

Belcher said Columbia voters have shown support of the district at the polls, not only in passing bonds for construction, but also in making up for funding cuts by the state legislature.

In April 2012, voters agreed to a tax levy increase of 40 cents per $100 of assessed property for district operations. Now, 60 percent of the district’s funding comes locally.

Since Belcher became superintendent in 2009, he has seen $20 million in cuts from the budget. He said that on top of funding cuts to all districts in Missouri, the state funding formula used to allot state money doesn’t do growing school districts any favors.

"When you look at the money per student each year from the state, it’s drastically being reduced," he said. "We’re growing, and the formula, when it’s not funded, penalizes growing districts. So, not only are we not getting money, we’re getting less money than other districts because of the dysfunctionality of the program."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.


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