Big budget behemoth pits administrative wish lists against classroom priorities
COLUMBIA, 10/12/11  (Op-Ed) --  A Columbia Missourian article that compares long-promised classroom air conditioning to a $7.8 million addition (above, left) to Columbia Public Schools administrative headquarters has fueled an old debate:   Why is it that administrative priorities at virtually all levels of local government routinely trump public priorities?

And why do public officials cite laws that "prohibit mixing of funds" when public challenges arise, but have no problem breaking those same laws when their own priorities are at issue? 

"Superintendent Chris Belcher said the money for the $7.8 million addition and the money for air conditioning projects can't, by law, be mixed," the Missourian article notes, although it cites no specific statute. 
Big Digs

When administrators use millions of taxpayer dollars to expand their own digs, in back of a school -- West Junior High -- that has never had air conditioning, how can they honestly think the public cares -- or should care -- about which pot of money provided the funds?  

Only one pot of money provides the funds -- tax dollars.   Whether it be to repay and guarantee bonds, or as good old-fashioned levies, tax dollars provide it all, regardless how administrators choose to divvy it up.

Senior administrators frequently disregard their old "you can't mix funds" canard anyway.  

When the City of Columbia built that huge new City Hall addition, for instance, then city manager Ray Beck siphoned $700,000 annually to pay for it from funds dedicated to other projects and services.   He performed this fund-mixing "sleight of hand" with neither the knowledge nor consent of the City Council or public, and was roundly criticized.

"$700,000 taken out of city funds annually for 20 years to pay for this project could deprive residents of other services they need, causing a tax increase or loss of services," wrote Rebecca Shedler, Stacy Applebee, and Elaine Hartley in the Columbia Tribune.   "So which city services might be cut back or eliminated because of this large expense?" 

Since that expense, City Hall has done nothing but cry poverty -- the ultimate irony the minute you step inside brand-spanking new city offices. 

Spirit of Democracy

If following the law is such an issue, why did the school district engage in such a short-term debate over building this Administration Mountain?   It was introduced early last summer (2010), when people were away.   "It is not something that is happening," said CPS information officer Michelle Baumstark at the time.   "Right now, it is just a concept."

That "concept" became a done deal a mere three months later, with deliberations taking place entirely over the summer.  Deliberations over a $7.8 million spending plan, in the midst of a perennial budget crisis -- at least as district officials paint it. 

So why the short, untimely debate that took place over the traditional school holiday?   One likely reason:  to minimize dissent.

In all the talk about following the law, how about following the spirit of the law, too?   That spirit encourages transparency, discussion, honesty, and timeliness -- all of which were missing from this $7.8 million debate

Head Scratcher

I scratch my head that in 21st-century Columbia, Missouri -- a comparatively wealthy, well-educated college town that prizes quality education -- we even have such a debate about a 109 year old technology.   Air conditioning, as we know it today, was invented in 1902.

CPS should have installed A/C not 10 years ago, or 20 years ago, but at least 30 years ago -- or more.   Instead, the lack of district-wide air conditioning exemplifies a long-standing resource distribution gap.

Poor maintenance, old buildings, mold, and bad furnaces are epidemics at schools low-income and minority children have attended here over the years.   School trailers and below-par teacher salaries are also part of the resource distribution gap. 

CPS takes extraordinary care of its senior administrators.  It also pays top dollar to our community's senior leaders (the new school land deals with Bob Pugh and Tom Atkins come to mind).  
District officials have consciously decided to let slide a huge inequity in property taxes, between the county's richest citizens and the rest of us.  They'd rather raise the average citizen's taxes than insist big developers and multimillionaires pay their fair share. 

They simply don't want to rock the boat, finding easier pickins' among us common folk.

Meanwhile, the resource distribution gap continues to grow.  In fact, such resource impoverishment presents an "uncontrolled variable" in the search for achievement gap causes.   Until that variable is controlled -- i.e., brought equal to the conditions non-minority children experience -- it's hard to attribute the achievement gap to race or family circumstance.

If school district administrators truly care about student achievement, they need to stop making excuses, and start communicating with honesty, intention, and plain language -- not edu-speak or legal jargon -- to the many stakeholders who care so deeply about our schools. 

-- Mike Martin for the Columbia Heart Beat

1 comment:

  1. Why not just spend the 7.8 million on classrooms and let the admin folks hang out at the Columbia Regional Library. In their spare time they might learn something.

    James F. Fairchild


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