- Written by Mike Martin
School Board member Crist called out high cost of REDI's "bribes" in 2005
COLUMBIA, 3/29/12 (Op-Ed) -- Four years after Columbia voters resoundingly defeated a 54-cent tax levy increase for Columbia Public Schools (CPS), district officials are back with a tax hike for the proverbial 99% -- and a partnership with REDI pushing tax breaks for Columbia's favored one percent.
They've broken the defeated 2008 levy into three new increases: 40 cents and 12 cents on the April 2012 ballot (along with a $50 million increase in bond debt); and a 3.2 cent levy increase last August School Board members approved without a public vote.
Added up -- 3 + 12 + 40 -- it's a 55-cent levy increase just four years after 62% of voters said "no."
The REDI partnership reminds of a similar defeat. In 2005, CPS School Board member Kerry Crist hammered the idea in a Columbia Tribune editorial, REDI bribes would slowly hurt schools.
"If REDI prevails, the very people who have consistently voted for bond issues and tax levies might eventually start questioning new tax requests," Crist wrote. "As taxpayers begin to realize that increased taxes are subsidizing businesses rather than funding public schools, many could join the anti-tax groups."
After the 2008 defeat -- which also swept levy proponent Darin Preis off the School Board -- Board member Michelle Gadbois said "patrons want district officials to entirely revamp how we spend money. I don’t believe the administration or the board got how radically different the community believes that our money should be spent."
As voters head to the polls next week, they should ask, "Is anything really different?" The same old threats of deeper cuts emerge in School Superintendent Chris Belcher's speeches. "If voters don't approve this levy, y'all will suffer," he says, with more teacher and program cuts.
But why more pain for us 99 percenter types? District officials have spent millions on poorly-situated development land, millions more on a grand new admin building. And now they're on the hook for millions in infrastructure costs to support new subdivisions and new schools many times they've admitted should never have been located in such out-of-way places.
Contrast Belcher's attitude to Ines Segert, newly elected in 2008. "Just because the superintendent says, ‘This is what we want to cut’ doesn’t mean we have to make those cuts," Segert said. "I do not favor cutting teacher positions, if at all possible."
In other words, if this superintendent can't make due with the budget he's handed without cutting teachers and programs, find a superintendent who can.
Back in 2008, School District reserve funds were bulging -- well ahead of the recommended 16% of its operating budget. "The school district tries to keep at least 16 percent of its operating budget in a reserve fund; however, that had grown to nearly 25 percent last year," the Trib reported in June 2008.
District officials promised to reduce reserves, to stop making so many cuts and taking in more money than they needed. But today, reserves are still bulging. "By the end of fiscal year 2011-12, the district’s reserves will increase to $37.5 million, or 24 percent of its operating budget," the Trib reported in Jan. 2012.
Something else that hasn't changed since 2008: School Board members Tom Rose and Jan Mees. Mrs. Segert and Ms. Gadbois -- the district's only dissenters in years -- stepped off the Board, but Dr. Rose and Mrs. Mees remain. As Ms. Gadbois left the board, she reflected on her service with them.
"Michelle Gadbois suffered abuse at the hands of fellow members for asking too many questions," the Trib reported. "She says other members accused her of micromanaging when she wanted to talk about individual budget items. 'I was slammed by other board members,' she says. 'I had people in closed meetings scream at me about this.'"
Now, there's no one on the School Board who will openly and consistently ask hard questions and dissent when necessary. After watching Ms. Gadbois suffer, who can blame them?
In fact, the only substantial thing about CPS administration that has changed since 2008 is Superintendent Phyllis Chase. Her replacement, Dr. Belcher started out promisingly enough. This writer liked his down-home style and jocular presentation.
But in short order, Dr. Belcher proved himself a crony capitalist, eager to leap into bed with REDI and its tax abatement plans which, in time, will drain CPS completely. REDI chairman Dave Griggs gets big CPS contracts while endorsing big CPS tax increases for the rest of us. Dr. Belcher, returning the favor, publicly endorses Griggs and REDI.
Contrast Belcher to Kerry Crist, who termed "recent efforts by Regional Economic Development Inc. (REDI) to push new tax breaks - call them bribes - surprising and upsetting" in 2005. "REDI is trying to convince Columbia residents that businesses won’t come to Columbia unless they get special tax breaks."
Seven years later, REDI is back asking for tax breaks; CPS is back asking for tax hikes. Meanwhile, the proverbial 99 percenters are stuck with the bill. Sounds like a broken record to me.
Supt. Belcher supporting business tax abatements
Kerry Crist opposing business tax abatements