Stiepleman: Columbia Public Schools will need more city funds

Friday, June 13, 2014 | 7:20 p.m. CDT; updated 4:06 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 16, 2014

*Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify that Peter Stiepleman believes an increase in the school district's property tax levy is necessary to pay for operations, not to pay debt on bond issues.

COLUMBIA — For Columbia Public Schools to provide students the same or a better level of service, the district will need more funding from the city, incoming Superintendent Peter Stiepleman told the Boone County Muleskinners on Friday.

Stiepleman spoke in front of a crowd of about 40 people at Columbia Country Club about how the district will have to adapt to changing conditions in the city. The Muleskinners are a Democratic-affiliated organization.

The district spends $10,000 on each student per year, but only $3,000 of that comes from the state, he said, and enrollment is growing at an average of 200 students a year.

"There will be a time when we ask our community to consider a tax levy. That is not next year, and maybe not even two years, but it is soon," Stiepleman said. "As we continue to grow … we have to be thoughtful about what that means. So, it either means a reduction in programs, or it means being responsive to what our needs are."

The district received $50 million in bond issues during both 2012 and 2014; those bond issues are funding new elementary schools on the southwest and east sides of town. In 2010, voters approved a $120 million bond issue, where most of the funding went to the construction of Battle High School and a new northeast elementary school.

In April, voters also approved a 4-cent property tax increase. A 12-cent increase was passed in 2012.

As a part of the district's 10-year facility and bond plan enacted during outgoing Superintendent Chris Blecher's term, three additional $40 million bond issues will be put before voters between 2016 and 2020. 

*Stiepleman's announcement isn't a departure from that plan. The district does not anticipate a property tax increase for any of the upcoming bond issues. The levy increase he's pondering would be for district operations, not for buildings.

Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala, who was in attendance, said that the district would not be the only entity seeking funds from voters and that there will be competition for public money in the near future. He said he would like to use property taxes as a means to fund the district, as opposed to using them for public safety funding, which was proposed by Mayor Bob McDavid.

"Everyone here is being squeezed," Skala said. "We're all competing for dollars."

Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas and Columbia School Board member Jan Mees were also at the meeting.

Changing school calendar

Stiepleman also said he would be open to re-evaluating the district's calendar.

While school is out for the normal summer vacation, many students forget what they learn. Switching to a schedule with more breaks but a shorter or no summer vacation may solve the problem, he said.

"I'm not averse to thinking about extending the school year. I'm not averse to having a conversation — although I don't think it will go over very well — about what would year-round schools look like," Stiepleman said. "We're not primarily an agrarian society anymore. So might we want to think about nine weeks on, three weeks off?"

Skala agreed, pointing out that while more affluent families have the opportunity to send their children to summer programs and camps, impoverished families don't have that option. He also said he supported increased discussions between the City Council and the school board.

"I think the approach to closing that gap for those who don't have other options to prevent them from forgetting the progress they've made is probably a reasonable thing to discuss," Skala said. "From a school board and parental position, I can see why that discussion might be real productive."

Stiepleman said that although changing the calendar won't fix all the district's problems, he thinks making changes to it when school lets out may help.

"We as a community are probably going to have to rethink the way we do school, and it may be in the form of just rethinking our calendar," Stiepleman said. "It may be that simple."

Supervising editor is Samuel Hardiman.

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