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School district makes case for tax hike

Columbia Public Schools needs an additional $10.26 million from taxpayers every year to continue to fund day-to-day operations and provide a top-notch education for youngsters, Chief Academic Officer Sally Beth Lyon said during an election forum yesterday.

The school district is seeking a 54-cent levy increase on the April 8 ballot, which would bring the districtís total levy to $5.25. During a League of Women Votersí candidate forum at the Columbia Public Library, Lyon outlined six reasons the district needs the extra 54 cents in property tax per $100 of assessed valuation. They are:

● Columbia Public Schools has received smaller increases in state aid since the stateís foundation formula changed. In 2005-06, Columbia saw a $1.7 million boost in state aid. That dropped to a $700,000 increase in 2006-07 and fell to a $400,000 increase last year, according to district information.

● Enrollment has increased by about 700 students since 2002-03, the last time voters approved an operating levy increase. Students moving into the district can generate new revenues when their parents buy homes and become new taxpayers; however, Lyon warned, some of the new students are from existing taxpayers having children.

● Salaries for teachers have increased over the past five years. "I think thatís a good thing," Lyon said. "The No. 1 thing tied to achievement is quality of teachers."

● Benefits for teachers and staff - including medical, life, dental and workerís compensation insurance - have increased 47 percent since 2002-03.

● Retirement contributions for teachers have increased 62 percent since 2002-03. This year alone, the district is contributing $15 million to the Public Schools Retirement System, Lyon said.

● Fixed costs, including utilities and transportation, have increased 45 percent since 2002-03.

The presentation did not mention that the school board this year opted to spend $10.35 million from reserve funds to add 70 new positions and boost teachersí salaries. The school districtís chief operations officer, Nick Boren, said in January that spending those one-time funds prompted the need for the tax increase this year.

Lyon said funding a quality school system is crucial to the economic viability of the community. "We have reasons to be so proud of our community and our schools," she said, touting the districtís state and national recognitions and the 3.6 percent dropout rate, a 20-year low.

Lyon also praised the "wonderful, really overwhelming support" the district received last April when 76 percent of voters approved a $60 million bond package to build a new elementary and the first phase of a high school. Lyon warned that bond monies are used to build new schools, not to pay for daily operations of the district.

After the presentation, Dick Parker of Columbia said he plans to vote for the tax increase. "In general, Iím in favor of supporting taxes for more money for education," he said. Although the 54-cent proposal "is a pretty steep jump, Iíll support it."

Resident Linda Green said sheís likely to vote against it. She expressed frustration that the levy presentation did not include an opposing viewpoint, nor did Lyon leave time for questions from the audience.

"Itís difficult for me to vote Ďyesí because I feel that the number of administrators should be looked at very carefully to see if thatís where some cuts can be made," she said. "European schools have fewer administrators than schools in the U.S. If they can do it, why canít we?"

Green also said she would have liked to have asked about the floor plans for the new elementary and high schools. The building designs, which show classroom pods with exterior walls, are not energy-efficient, she said. "I question the judgment of people who are using our money so wastefully."

Reach Janese Heavin at (573) 815-1705 or





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