COLUMBIA, 8/31/11 (Op Ed) --
About our story THE BIG RENEGE: Are school officials breaking long-awaited air conditioning promise?
former Columbia Public Schools assistant superintendent for elementary education Jack Jensen, Ph.D. writes:
Dear Mr. Martin:
I found your article regarding the school district’s air-conditioning project to be inaccurate and misleading. I was part of the administrative team that helped develop projects for the bond issues you mentioned, and took the message to the community. Starting with the 2007 bond issue and each plan since, air-conditioning has been a part of the projects.
ALL BUILDINGS WILL BE AIR-CONDITIONED when the projects are completed in 2014. That was the promise, not that a certain school would be air-conditioned by a particular school year.
When a school district passes a bond issue, they do not get access to all the money at one time. Passing the bond issue gives the district permission to sell the bonds at a certain rate depending on economic variables in the bond market, assessed valuation of in the community and the revenue available to service the debt on the books.
The bond issues involving air-conditioning, building a new elementary school, high school, and numerous other projects were “no tax increase” issues.
The district can only sell bonds at a certain rate or they would exceed the districts bonding capacity or their ability to make debt payments on the outstanding principal. The district is constantly looking for ways to maximize their bonding capacity while getting the very best interest rates possible. As they decide on which projects to undertake, they are considering how they can have the greatest impact on the largest number of students with the resources they have available to them.
The building of the new administration building (which will house many different offices including, administration, curriculum, food services, business services, Parents As Teachers, etc) is coming from a different budget and funding source. School districts have an operating levy and a bond levy. Because the leases for several district offices were coming out of the operating levy, the district was able to structure this project to save the district money on the short term and in the long run.
The following link gives accurate information on this project,
Bottom line: because of this decision, there will be more resources for children, not less.
Finally, in your quote from Dr. Belcher about possibly putting additional money towards air-conditioning, he was talking about the fact that the board sets the district tax levies yearly according to Missouri State Statutes. Once a year, a district can make changes in the property tax levy because of different amounts coming in from sales taxes, and property taxes.
Sometimes the property tax levy is lowered (that does not get much press) when sales tax money come in high, and sometimes it is increased when sales tax comes in low (that almost always gets a front page headline). There are statutes a school district must follow that govern this process and limit the amount of change.
During this time the district can make changes in how much of the levy goes into its different funds. When Dr. Belcher recommends a change that puts more money into the capital levy, that comes at a price of less money for other needs such as teachers (which results in larger class size), materials, etc. There is no “reneging” on past promises; the levy would have been adjusted regardless of the issue of air-conditioning,
Dr. Belcher is simply trying to address a need quicker by allocating limited resources towards the issue of air-conditioning.
Administration knew there would be problems because air-conditioning the buildings would not happen all at once. In the newspaper articles you sited it is clear that no promises were made about when a certain school was going to be air-conditioned, only that they would be air-conditioned by the end of this bond cycle.
I spoke to both Dr. Belcher and Dr. Boren to check if this was still the case, and was assured the promises that were made with these bond issues would be upheld. There is not an administrator or board member involved in this project that would not have liked to air-condition every building the first year after passing the bond, but that was not financially possible. This was also communicated to the public in the meetings where this information was presented.
But when your child is sitting in a hot building all that is remembered is that air-conditioning was promised!
School finance is complicated and regulated by state statue. The funding formula that dictates how a school district gets funding has been referred to for years as "the Winged Monster." Any help you can give to help the public understand it would be appreciated.
Also, before people jump to a conclusion that administration is doing something "stupid," pick up the phone and ask them to explain their reasoning, and hear them with an open mind. At the end you may agree or disagree, but at least you will have the same information they are using to make their decisions.
[Though a response to Dr. Jensen's letter will follow next time, if as he says, "the bond issues involving air-conditioning, etc. were 'no tax increase' issues," why did the school district just increase taxes
to help pay for air conditioning?]
School Board bumps tax levy to go toward air conditioning