The School Board-Industrial Complex kicks in to high gear
COLUMBIA, 1/12/12 (Beat Byte) -- If voters approve not one, but two $50 million bond issues this April and again in 2014, the Columbia Public School District (CPS) will have financed more than $325 million in bond debt since 2002 -- a staggering one third of one billion dollars.
The bond debt includes 2010's $120 million bonanza, reported as possibly the largest single bond issue in the history of Missouri public schools.
CPS bond fever started with a $24 million issue back in 2002. The fever spiked again in 2004, 2007, 2010, and now in 2012 with plans for 2014. Tax levy increases to pay off the bonds -- essentially large debts guaranteed by property taxes -- have followed with similar regularity.
To sell the bond debt to voters, district officials make promises they later break and quietly change important timelines. In January 2007, for instance, the school board approved three $60 million bond issues -- $180 million -- to be voted on in 2007, 2011 and 2013. That timeline became three $60 million bond issues in 2007 and 2010; $50 million in 2012; and another $50 million in 2014.
In other words, plans for $180 million in debt have become plans for $280 million in debt in just five years.
Meanwhile, though the bond issues have reportedly included several large maintenance projects, CPS continues to sit on acres of classroom trailers and acres of older buildings without basic amenities like air conditioning.
Voters, teachers, and students want their neighborhood schools maintained, upgraded, and restored -- a central promise with every bond issue that -- after $225 million and counting -- should have been fulfilled years ago.
But CPS heat and snow days remain so notorious that communities around Columbia literally laugh at our leadership ineptitude. A Mexico, Missouri official recently told me that, having solved their school air conditioning issue "years ago," they "get a chuckle out of how Columbia still has to send children home when it gets hot out."
"We also plow our streets after it snows -- ALL of our streets," she said. "Given Columbia's supposed commitment to education, all this does seem strange to us folks in the hinterlands."
It seems very strange, and brings to mind a central question that should be on the mind of every voter, parent, taxpayer, and CPS booster in Columbia: Where in the world is $325 million in bond debt -- and all the tax levies in between -- going?
With only one high school, one elementary school, and one state-of-the-art administration headquarters to show for the bulk of the debt, the biggest beneficiaries are builders, developers, consultants, and project engineers: the School Board-Industrial complex, if you will.
As one former school board member insists, Battle High cost twice as much as it should have: $80 million instead of $40 million. And this as CPS also sits on acres of land for new schools the district buys without even basic infrastructure.
To look ahead at where all the money is going, the Columbia Heart Beat will look back with a series about the sell jobs, the snow jobs, the big bucks, the broken promises, the developer bonanzas, and the massive debt our schools are taking on.
Given the sluggish national economy and the squeeze local government is tightening on average-income residents -- from rising property taxes and new taxes to expand a perennially-struggling airport to raising every type of utility bill, again and again and again -- we'll be asking:
When will enough, finally, be enough?