Colorado school districts taking another shot at tax measures after past defeats
Author: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat Colorado - September 11, 2017 - Updated: September 11, 2017
Higher teacher pay, technology upgrades and better curriculum resources are topping the wish lists of Colorado school districts going to voters with tax measures this November.
The Brighton 27J school district is one of nearly 20 districts with money measures on local ballots, and the only one in the Denver metro area. Colorado Springs’ District 11 and Greeley 6 also are asking voters for increased funding.
“We need it,” said Brighton superintendent Chris Fiedler. “We desperately need it.”
With a long-term fix to Colorado’s school funding challenges proving elusive, districts are left to make up gaps with local tax measures. That has led to vast inequities, with some districts able to bank on local voters and others being turned down again and again.
Voters in Brighton approved a bond request two years ago on a third attempt. The district had already resorted to stretching out school days to fit the district’s growing number of students in existing buildings. Voters then approved the bond request to help the district make more space.
But bond requests in Colorado are only allowed for certain uses, such as buildings.
That’s why the district is back this year, asking for a $12 million mill levy override, a property tax increase. The district has asked for this type of tax increase five times since 2003, but has been turned down every time. The last mill levy request approved was in 2000.
The money this year would be used to increase salaries, add counselors to every elementary school and provide new curriculum and technology. The district is in such financial straits, it recently had to purchase new literacy resources on a three-year payment plan.
Superintendent Fiedler said the district’s needs have been identified since 2014, but that he waited to ask because he didn’t think voters would approve both a bond and mill levy request on the same ballot.
“In my mind, it’s long overdue,” Fiedler said.
In Greeley, the district also asked voters for an increase in local taxes last year and was turned down.
This time the district is seeking approval for a $14 million mill levy request that would go to pay teachers and staff more and to update curriculum, technology and add security cameras at the high school.
Terri Pappas, school board director and co-chair of the campaign for the ballot question, said people last year just wanted the district to be more specific about how the money would be used, and some needed more information about how school funding works.
“We did a lot of outreach and we’ve taken all of that feedback, all of that information and we’ve been working diligently since May coming up with a plan to reach voters,” Pappas said.
The difference between the no votes and yes votes last year was so close, Pappas said, that district leaders felt they had to use that momentum this year.
Glenn Gustafson, the chief financial officer of Colorado Springs School District 11, said district leaders there felt the same way.
District 11 is also just asking for a mill levy override this year, but has raised the amount to $42 million, up from last year’s unsuccessful $32.6 million mill levy request. The money would be used for salaries, facility improvements and for new school psychologists and counselors.
Gustafson said the low salaries are especially affecting the district’s ability to hire support staff. For instance, the district has 29 open positions for food workers, he said.
“We’re short on bus drivers every single day,” Gustafson said. “We have to pull people out of the office to help drive.”
Voters last approved a mill levy tax increase in District 11 in 2000. Voters in Greeley have never approved a property tax increase for school funding.
Brighton’s district leaders think there’s one more thing that might be able to make a difference in this year’s elections: the voter base.
Colorado voter registration records show Adams County has seen an increase of more than 37,000 voters since November of 2011, the last time Brighton asked voters for a mill levy override. In recent years, voter records show one of the biggest increases is among 18 to 25 year-olds.
“The vast majority of those folks are young families with kids,” Superintendent Fiedler said. “They have different perspectives.”
In District 11, Gustafson said a large challenge is reaching voters who don’t have children in schools. In Greeley, officials believe there are new young families in the district, but it remains a challenge to get them all to vote.
“We need to make sure we reach out to all of our voters,” Gustafson said. “And we’re pushing to get all of our parents involved.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.