Cuts again in store for Columbia’s teachers

Tuesday, November 4, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:00 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

For the second year in a row, teachers will be cut from the Columbia Public School District. But exactly how many and from which schools are months away from being determined.

With an extremely early estimate of a $12.1 million shortfall for the 2004-05 school budget, a cut of more than 250 teachers is possible. In budget discussions, Jacque Cowherd, deputy superintendent for administration, is using the estimate of about 23 full-time employees per $1 million.

Teacher salaries account for 85 percent of the budget, which makes them a hard-to-miss target in tough fiscal times.

“It’s a personnel-driven business,” Cowherd said. “We’re going to have to find a way to reach kids with less money. It’s a real challenge.”

For this school year, 32 staff positions were cut — including 22.7 full-time teachers at the elementary and secondary levels — when the state decided it had to give schools less because of budget shortfalls. Currently, the district is set to receive only $26 million of its expected $37.1 million from the state.

In an attempt to lessen the shortfall last year, a 19-cent property tax levy was passed in Columbia. That generated about $3.5 million for the district.

Cowherd said this type of shortfall is something relatively new to the state and district.

“The foundation formula has been funded completely until the last couple of years,” he said, referring to a formula the state uses to determine how much money a district should get.

Mary Laffey, director of human resources for the district, emphasized that no decision has been made on the number of teachers to be cut. Early predictions last year called for the elimination of 100 positions, Laffey said — almost 70 more than were cut.

Having gone through this before, Laffey said the district must first prioritize programs by talking to program managers and teachers.

“If all (the cuts) are taken on the back of personnel, we will just have to figure out how to give the best education possible,” she said.

Laffey also spoke of attempts to collaborate with the community to keep programs functioning. Last year, the district was involved in talks with the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department to take over the fourth-grade swimming program. Although nothing materialized, the district will continue similar discussions.

Greg Jung, president of the Missouri National Education Association, said projected monetary shortfalls are being discussed in many other places around the state. If the situation does not improve by the spring, Jung said, “virtually in two years’ time, they will have wiped out 10 years’ progress in school funding.”

However, Jung stressed that the budget situation is not a foregone conclusion.

“It’s a shame that districts feel (there isn’t much to do), but they don’t have to take it sitting down. They have a lot of power in contacting legislators,” he said.

Jung, a fifth-grade teacher in the Ritenour School District in St. Louis, also said that if the Missouri General Assembly won’t agree to provide the money, it might be time to change the legislature.

David Bond, director of membership services for the Missouri State Teachers Association, said that until the legislature resolves how much funding will be allocated (expected in late spring), all talk of cuts is speculative.

Because of cuts, Bond said, “class sizes are rising, and that affects the quality of education provided.”

“We’re going to do what we can to get the most money we can get for the foundation formula for teachers statewide when the legislature convenes in January,” he said.

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