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District: Tax hike, bond critical to education

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By Vicky Gits

With the economy on shaky ground, November is shaping up as a difficult time to ask for more money for Jefferson County Schools, but district officials are optimistic that voters will come through with the same enthusiasm they demonstrated four years ago.

The district is asking for a $350 million bond issue to replace the bonds that are being paid off, plus a 4.4-mill increase in property tax, for $34 million a year in revenue, or an $88-a-year tax increase for a $250,000 house.

“If 3A does not pass, it would be awful for all principals because it would mean eliminating programs, increasing class size or dropping electives. We would not have the staffing,” said Frank DeAngelis, principal of Columbine High School. DeAngelis is concerned about the impact of increasing graduation requirements and the need for more teachers in the face of declining revenue.

In Evergreen, Wilmot Elementary School principal Dannae McReynolds said a new gym is essential.

“Right now we can’t have all-school assemblies,” McReynolds said. “We don’t have enough room in the gym area for all the parents on back-to-school night.” The school also has to hold science fairs on different days.

There is a “very tiny, inadequate stage for children’s performances,” and the downstairs is not disabled accessible, McReynolds said. There is only one computer lab with 30 computers, and all 400 children have to use them. The school has one “smart board.”

“If it doesn’t pass, it will have a huge impact,” she said.

The bond issue would pay for new buildings, technology upgrades and structural remodeling through 2014, while the mill levy increase goes for more teachers, classes and upgrades. (See breakout for the itemized lists for your area.)

The two measures, known as 3A and 3B, would help fund the district’s commitment to raising graduation requirements by two credits (equivalent to one class for four semesters), from 22 to 24, beginning with the class of 2013, or freshmen entering high school in 2009. Without the money, the district will have to cut back in other areas because the credit increase is already in place.

While citizens have been receptive in the past, not everyone is on board.

“Here is where I’m at. I say we should get transparency first. If Jeffco is transparent, then yes. Jeffco has a wish list that’s beyond its wildest dreams,” said Jeff Sacco, a Jeffco resident and a parent of past students.

“There is declining enrollment. There were 109 schools rated excellent in 2006 and only 67 in 2007,” he said.

“The sense is of this ballooning demand,” said his partner, Linda Sasenick. “Are these critical needs?”

Sasenick maintains there is $100 million in the capital reserve fund and $20 million from the state ongoing annually.

“If there are critical needs, then there is money available,” she said. “The rest should wait until the public knows what is critical.” She thinks it’s time to give taxpayers a break instead of a third mill levy boost.

Sacco continues to work, but he says a lot of people on fixed incomes are tightening their belts and aren’t in a position to pay more.

School system of the future

The proposed school funding package is the cornerstone of Superintendent Cindy Stevenson’s vision of a district that offers all technology upgrades, as well as academic and elective variety, preparing students for college or the work world.

Stevenson presided over a successful fund-raising campaign in 2004, but she is not resting on her laurels. The superintendent is spending her vacation time until the election going to meetings and making the case for the tax increase, since she is not allowed to function in an advocate role during work hours. She takes her turn on the phone bank and plans to walk the Ralston Valley neighborhood Oct. 18 with other volunteers, parents, students and principals.

She supports the efforts of the group Citizens for Jeffco Schools, which distributed 15,000 yard signs.

Stevenson has lofty goals.

“I am accountable for 85,000 children, Stevenson said. “I want to do the very best work I can do for the 11 percent of children who go to school in Colorado. I want them in facilities that match 21st-century learning needs and programs that are the very best in the state — small class size, top technology, well-trained teachers and increased graduation requirements. If we don’t do this, we don’t continue to improve.”

The $350 million is only part of the total of $7 billion of improvements the school district identified in 2002.

Without the money, there will be increases in class size and a reduction of up to 400 people, Stevenson said.

If approved, ballot issue 3A (the 4.4-mill levy increase) will pay for operating expenses, including expanding options for career job skills, paying teachers to support increased high school graduation requirements, bus fuel and maintaining teachable class sizes.

If approved, ballot issue 3B (bond debt) will pay for things such as a new kindergarten addition and roof improvements at Marshdale Elementary in Evergreen ($3.4 million), a gymnasium addition at Conifer High ($8.4 million) and the second-phase master plan for Evergreen Middle School ($10 million).

It means $15.6 million of investment in South Jeffco schools, including a second gym at Columbine High ($7.4 million). Colorow Elementary would get a kitchen addition and interior remodel, among other things, for $2.5 million.

The new money is also slated to build elementary schools in Solterra at $13 million (Green Mountain) and north of Colorado 72 (Rocky Flats) for $15 million.

If the measures are not approved and budget reductions take effect, it would mean $35 million in cuts over three years.

That would translate into losses of teachers and assistant principals at all levels, as well as loss of clinic aide time and paraprofessional support. There could be a loss of senior high bus routes, campus supervisors and counselors in the high schools, according to a school district newsletter.

For Kristopher Schuch, principal of Evergreen Middle School, the stakes are life-altering.

“If the mill levy doesn’t pass, we are looking at a reduction of $3.5 million for the middle school over three years.”

It would mean losing two teachers, paraprofessional hours, programs, technology and upkeep, not to mention the $10 million of construction money that would go to eliminate the temporary classrooms and put those classrooms inside the building.

“We are doing a lot to get the word out about how important this is,” he said.

BREAKOUT 1

The cost to taxpayers

The mill levy is expected to cost taxpayers an extra $2.92 a month per $100,000 of a home’s assessed valuation. The bond issue is to replace the level of borrowing that is already in place as it gets paid off and will not be a tax increase.

As of December 2007, the school tax was 48.11 mills per $100,000 of assessed valuation, or $957 a year on a $250,000 home. With the new proposed 4.4-mill increase, the tab would be another $88 a year, or $1,045.

The school district last asked for money in 2004, with a bond election for $323 million and a mill levy override for $38 million, both of which were successful.

BREAKOUT 2

Mill-levy override

The $32 million mill levy override (Ballot Issue 3A) is to pay for operating expenses, teacher salaries and keeping smaller class sizes, especially in kindergarten and first and second grades, where the target size is 20. The mill levy override is a perpetual increase, as opposed to the bond issue, which has a fixed lifespan.

Breaking down the schools tax in mills

As of Dec. 14, 2007

Source: Jefferson County Assessors Office

(a mill is 1/1,000th of a dollar)

Mill levy Item

26.252 Statewide school tax

3.439 Voter-approved increase in 1999

1.486 Mill boost due to performance promise

5.296 Voter-approved boost in 2005

0.395 Adjustment for error

36.868 Total General Fund

11.25 Bond Redemption Fund

48.118 Total school property tax in mills

BREAKOUT 3

Proposed capital improvement program 2009 to 2014

(Source: Jeffco Public Schools)

$419 million: $350 million voter-approved school bond; $60 million mandatory transfers; $9 million investment earnings

Mountain area schools (Conifer and Evergreen)

Proposed building investment plan: $30.1 million

Major projects:

• Marshdale Elementary: addition, renovation and roof replacement

• Evergreen Middle: Phase 2 addition

• Wilmot Elementary: Phase 2 addition

• Conifer High: Major addition including an auditorium and auxiliary gym

Budgeted:

• Elk Creek Elementary, $377,110

Building security, playground, HVAC, classroom technology upgrade

• Marshdale Elementary, $3,388,523

Kindergarten addition, roof improvements, windows, building security, classroom technology upgrade

• West Jefferson Elementary, $263,980

Office area renovation, building security, site improvements, classroom technology upgrade

• West Jefferson Middle, $822,189

Interior finishes, building security, classroom technology upgrade

• Conifer High, $8,406,150

Auditorium/auxiliary gymnasium addition, pump house improvements, classroom technology upgrade, teacher work area remodel

• Bergen Meadow Elementary, $720,760

Administration/entry remodel, roofing, classroom technology upgrade, building security

• Bergen Valley Elementary, $312,761

Building security, heating, ventilating and airconditioning, classroom technology upgrade.

• Parmalee Elementary, $571,609

Windows, secure entry, heating, ventilating and airconditioning, classroom technology upgrade, building security

• Wilmot Elementary, $4,743,355

Phase 2 of master plan, building security, classroom technology upgrade

• Evergreen Middle, $9,975,000

Phase 2 of master plan, classroom technology upgrade, building security.

• Evergreen High, $521,984

Secure entry, lockers, heating, ventilating and air conditioning, classroom technology upgrade