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School tax is rejected
New board members vow to scrutinize cuts.

Although she’s not sure exactly what voters were saying yesterday when they overwhelmingly defeated Columbia Public Schools’ 54-cent levy increase, Superintendent Phyllis Chase said she’s listening.

‘I’m not sure what that message is, and I think that’s what we have to find out next. ... No matter what, our next step is working hard to maintain the confidence and trust of those who voted “yes” and work even harder to gain the trust of those who voted “no.” ’

— Superintendent
Phyllis Chase

"I’m not sure what that message is, and I think that’s what we have to find out next," she said. "Certainly, we know these schools belong to our community, and our community must weigh in and indicate their level of support. No matter what, our next step is working hard to maintain the confidence and trust of those who voted ‘yes’ and work even harder to gain the trust of those who voted ‘no.’ "

Columbia Board of Education members blame a weak economy and a dissatisfaction with the district for the nearly 62 percent of voters who said "no" to raising the levy by 54 cents per $100 of assessed property valuation.

"It’s not one of my best nights," board member Steve Calloway said during a watch party for incumbent Darin Preis, who failed to win re-election last night. "I’m trying to figure out what’s going on. I understand people being upset about the way things have happened. The board owns that. But as far as the kids are concerned, I’m still thoroughly convinced we need that" tax increase "for our kids and our teachers. ... I do think, as a board, we’re going to have to figure out what the public is telling us, what they’re really telling us."

Parker Eshelman photo
From left, Columbia Board of Education members Steve Calloway and Jan Mees talk with Stacie Preis and Bill Mees at an election watch party last night at Flat Branch Pub & Brewery.

Board member Michelle Gadbois said one message to the district is that "there’s more discontent in the community than many of us thought," she said. Another message, she said, is that patrons want district officials to "entirely revamp how we spend money. I think that was the community’s message. I don’t believe the administration or the board got how radically different the community believes that our money should be spent."

With Preis’ defeat, Calloway and Gadbois are next in line to become the next board president when Karla DeSpain is slated to step down next week. Gadbois has said she will not accept the presidency, which means the gavel likely will fall to Calloway.

If board members elect him president, Calloway would start that tenure helping them decide how to reduce the district’s operating budget by another $5 million. The board already has approved a list of $3 million in cuts, and it found a way to save $2 million by changing accounting practices.

On the list of deeper cuts are 14 elementary and 10 secondary teaching positions, the elimination of which could lead to larger class sizes.

Newly elected board member Rosie Tippin said the board needs to take another look at those cuts. "We need to do what we can to minimize the impact of the cuts we’re going to have to make and make sure our kids will still get a quality education," she said.

Ines Segert, also elected to the board last night, said she wants to consider budget reductions other than classroom teachers. "Just because the superintendent says, ‘This is what we want to cut’ doesn’t mean we have to make those cuts," she said. "I do not favor cutting teacher positions, if at all possible."

Chase said she’s open to other budget cut suggestions. "We’ll certainly scrutinize it, as former board members have also done," she said.

Chase also said she’d like to convene a community group that would review district decision-making processes, both previous and future. She also wants patrons to get a better idea of how the district operates.

"I think when the public understands what it is we do and how we do it - just as we made presentations to many of our publics - we see the light go on and many of them say, ‘Oh, we did not know that.’ We need to make sure the public knows what we’re doing and why we’re doing it."

Callaway said it’s too early to know what impact the levy’s defeat will have on Chase’s position.

"How much do you hold a superintendent responsible for the many facets of what’s going on, like the economy?" he said. "That’s a hard question."

Calloway said Chase’s evaluation cycle for the coming year is complete, but he said the levy’s defeat could be a factor in her evaluation next year. Both Calloway and Preis stressed that Chase’s job is to put forth programs to meet district goals of boosting achievement and maximizing resources.

Preis said there is a public "discomfort with Dr. Chase. She’s struggling to connect with people. But that’s not why she was hired. She was hired to put systems in place to meet board goals."


Reach Janese Heavin at (573) 815-1705 or jheavin@tribmail.com.


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