Prudence and the Columbia School Board
Thanks to Janese Heavin’s excellent coverage on her Class Notes blog, I’ve been keeping an eye on the drama surrounding the Columbia School Board’s pursuit of an 11-percent increase in the district’s school tax levy. Much of the controversy has been rooted in the fact that the school board drew $10.3 million from its reserves to pay first-year salaries for 70 newly-hired positions, knowing that the salaries could not be sustained without an increase in the levy.
But the whole story took a rather baffling twist with remarks made by one of the school board’s members at a recent forum for school board candidates:
“We didn’t think it would be prudent to come to taxpayers and ask for
an increase with” $36 million “in reserves,” he told about 20 attendees
at an NAACP-sponsored forum for school board candidates. “We spent them
down purposefully. We did that with the full understanding that we
would have to make decisions about how to cut costs or seek a levy. …
It was a prudent decision to spend down reserves first.”
This is a classic case of the "better to ask forgiveness than permission" mentality. The school board knew that Columbia’s taxpayers would not willingly shoulder an additional tax burden, so they hired first hoping the move would force taxpayers to accept an increase in taxes. With the hires made and the new personnel already present in the schools, the board was betting that the citizens would not call its bluff.
As appalling as this tactic is, there is a rather mystifying point that also needs to be highlighted: Columbia’s School Board, surprisingly, seems to be quite good about meeting its budget on a year-to-year basis. The district has ended nine of the last 10 years with a surplus, building its reserve from about 13 percent in ’96?’97 to nearly 25 percent before last year’s $10.3-million hiring spree. To be sure, the budget itself is bloated by certain unnecessary expenditures, but I would be thrilled if other public school districts consistently kept within their budgets. April’s election in Columbia will tell us whether the city’s voters are sufficiently impressed with the school board’s stewardship that they’ll overlook the shady planning of the board members.