School district struggles with budget crunch

40 teaching positions might be cut due to a lack of state funding, according to officials.
Friday, January 23, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:18 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Paying teachers more versus cutting jobs was at the heart of a discussion Thursday by the Columbia Board of Education.

“I would love to raise salaries, but if we have to cut more teachers ... it is a tension, a balancing act,” said board member Karla DeSpain.

Superintendent Phyllis Chase told the board that an $8.7 million deficit is predicted for the Columbia Public School District’s 2004-2005 budget. In order to balance the budget, that gap would have to be filled using reserve funds and budget cuts, she said.

Chase said that 40 teachers and eight to 10 noncertified staff could be cut due to lack of funding from the state. A formula the state uses to give money to school districts is being challenged in the courts, and revamping it is a priority for legislators.

However, as things stand now, the Columbia district, along with most districts statewide, is not getting all of the money to which it is entitled under the formula.

Last year, the district cut 32 positions.

Board President Russ Still confirmed that the school district will maintain current contracts and the salary schedule no matter what. The matter of holding or increasing salaries was raised by Still, board member Elton Fay and others in the context of trying to keep teachers in a competitive market.

“We’re going to be in a system with low-paid, unhappy teachers, or we’ll have to find a way to cut to make them better paid and happier,” Fay said. He requested budget outlines for base salary increases of up to $1,000 a year.

With a budget projection that probably forces millions of dollars of cuts, finding more money for salaries seems daunting, board members said. From larger classes to program cuts, the options could interfere with district goals to improve student achievement.

“I’ve asked teachers if they would rather have more pay and larger classes or less pay and smaller classes. The minority says they would rather have smaller classes. The majority says, ‘I don’t know,’” said J.C. Headley, board vice president. “There’s a tension if they’d rather have three or four more students or $3,000 to $4,000 more in a bank account.”

The board will take a further look at increasing efficiency — possibly through consolidating schools — and using the district’s reserve funds to explore increasing salaries. Administrators will continue to outline budget possibilities in the next few months until they formally present it in April.

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