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Columbia Public Schools have bond and tax increase issues on April ballot

Tuesday’s Columbia ballot will feature two issues for the Columbia Public Schools District.

The first is a $30 million, no tax-increase bond.

“That essentially means we’ve paid down our debt and we’re asking for permission to take on new debt without exceeding any ceiling,” said Peter Stiepleman, CPS superintendent.

It would allow the district to buy land and design a middle school, especially to alleviate the stress seen at Gentry Middle School.

“Eight hundred fifty students, 13 trailers and the growth in the south of town is not ending,” said Stiepleman.

In addition, the district would be able to build onto existing elementary schools, expand Gentry’s kitchen, take care of facility and roof needs, improve technology and add to the athletic base.

The second issue is a 65-cent property tax increase. That 65 cents is per $100 of assessed home valuation.

It’s broken down into three parts.

Thirty-one cents would be to increase teacher salary. Stiepleman said they lose employees to cities where they can make more money.

“If you’re replacing 150 employees every year, which is what we’re doing, it costs money to continually retrain people. That is a challenge for us,” he said.

Thirty cents would be to help end deficit spending for the district.

“We built up reserves to open up Battle High Schools and our revenues are being outpaced by our expenditures,” said Stiepleman. “We’re seeing a steady decline in our reserves. So we’re asking permission to end our planned deficit spending.”

The last 4 cents would bring more funds to student needs like career and technical education programs, the early childhood program and English Language Learning classes.

Stiepleman said they’ve seen a 100 percent increase in the students who need to learn English as a second language, whether they are children of exchange students from Asia or students from refugee camps.

The district is hoping both will pass.

“They really go hand in hand,” said Stiepleman. “You can approve the building of something, but you have to be able to operate something you build.”

Voters often don’t like to see a tax increase on the ballot, but Stiepleman said they wouldn’t ask for it if they didn’t feel it was necessary.

“We should be getting about $6,808 for every student in the public schools. It’s through the foundation formula, designed and written by the state,” he said. “Unfortunately because of low general revenue, because of tax cuts, we’re going to get $6,110 for every child. The difference equals what we are asking for when you include moneys we’ve seen decreased funding in.”

Stiepleman said the district also hasn’t gotten as much funding from property tax recently, either.

“For the last eight years we’ve not seen an increase in the value of our homes. The assessed valuation over the last eight years has been an average of about 1.8 percent,” he said. “The previous eight years we had an average of 6.8 percent in terms of value, so you could rely on new construction and the value of our homes to fuel school funding.”

A 2008 ballot issue for a tax levy increase failed for the district. Stiepleman said he believes it is because the district wasn’t upfront about its plans for the revenue. This time around, he said the district has laid out a long-term plan.

“We said this is what we need and this is what we’ll spend it on,” he said.

Officials hope voters understand how vital the school district is for the community.

“Your public schools are a hub or a foundation for the kind of learning and greater success of your citizens in the future,” said Stiepleman.

If the ballot measures don’t pass, the district could make things work for about a year, but then officials say they would have to have difficult conversations to discuss what would need to be cut.

“The reality is several years ago we did a lot of cutting, so these cuts would have to be things that make our district a good district,” said CPS spokesperson Michelle Baumstark.

The tax levy needs a simple majority to pass and the bond requires a 57 percent vote to pass.

You can find more details on the ballot measures here.

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