School district seeks funds for building upgrades, educational needs

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By Vicky Gits

Taxpayers in Jefferson County will be asked to decide this fall whether to allow the school district to issue $323 million to $350 million in debt and assess taxpayers between $32 million and $36 million a year.

The district is proposing a two-part program — the bond issue and a “mill levy override.” The mill levy override is an increase in the mill levy, above and beyond what taxpayers have previously approved.

The mill levy override would cost a homeowner about $3.35 a month for each $100,000 of assessed valuation.

Bond elections pay for capital expenses, while mill levies pay for operating expenses.

Without the bond issue, the school-related property tax would shrink in a few years after the district paid off its previous debt. (The bond redemption fund stands at about 11.25 mills.)

The school district last asked for money in 2004, when there was a bond election for $323 million and a mill levy override for $38 million.

The new bond election is designed not to increase the tax rate but to keep it steady and avoid a decrease, said Lorie Gillis, the district’s chief financial officer. Taxpayers would continue to pay at roughly the same rate as before. Since the tax rate is based on assessed valuation, taxpayers would pay more as their property values go up.

The $350 million in new bond money is slated to pay for building, updating and renovating schools, said district Superintendent Cindy Stevenson. The list of needs includes:

• Improvements at Columbine High School.

• Improvements at Ken Caryl Middle School.

• Phase two renovations for Evergreen Middle School.

• An auxiliary gym for Conifer High School.

• Major improvements for nine high schools and four middle schools.

• Major or minor improvements for 70 middle schools.

• Technology upgrades in hundreds of classrooms,

• Two new elementary schools, in Solterra (Green Mountain) and north of Colorado 72 (Rocky Flats) for $20 million.

The $32 million to $36 million mill levy override is slated to pay for operating expenses and mainly pays for teacher salaries and for limiting class sizes, especially in kindergarten and first and second grades. (The target size is 20.) The mill levy override is a perpetual increase, as opposed to the bond issue, which has a fixed lifespan.

The override money also pays for the cost of increasing high school graduation requirements from 22 credits to 24.

“It will require more math, science or world language classes — in other words, $6 million worth of teachers,” Stevenson said. “We could increase requirements in math and science and decrease choices in the arts, but we don’t want that. We want to sustain our arts,” she said.

The requirements take effect for this year’s class of seventh-graders (graduating in 2013), and they will take effect whether or not the increases pass. So if the ballot measures don’t pass, cuts will have to be made elsewhere, Stevenson said.

“If we don’t have additional funds, we will decrease our budget by $32 million by 2013,” she said. “We are trying to be proactive.”

What happens if the tax measures get rejected? “Nothing in 2008-09, but in fall 2009, you will see a reduction in instructional funds, curriculum development and teacher training. No decisions have been made yet. Next year if it doesn’t pass, we would have to open schools with $7 million less in 2009, $12 million less in 2010, and $16 million less in 2012-2013.” (The total is $32 million over three years.)

What are the chances of a bond issue and mill levy passing in a year when fuel prices are soaring and the economy is slipping?

“In the last election, no one gave us a chance. And we passed it by 20 percent,” Stevenson said.

“We have a moral obligation to go to our voters. One way or the other we are going to do schools and put our hearts and souls into it. You get to choose. That’s part of our democracy.”

Some people don’t see it the same way. Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute of Golden, takes a dim view of repeated requests from schools for more money.

“Retiring debt is good. Taking on more debt is not always good, and raising taxes in a tough year is not a good idea. Unfortunately, we only look at one side of the equation,” Caldara said.

“We always hear, ‘We need more money.’ In 2000 we passed Amendment 23, which put school spending on autopilot above the rate of inflation. In 2005 we jacked up permanently the baseline for the state and took away $6 billion of tax refunds (one-third for education). On the local level, 174 school districts statewide have de-Bruced.”

Caldara thinks the question should be, “What is the school district going to give to make education more effective and more efficient? What do we get? What about more choice?”

“Every couple of years they tell us that we have overcrowded buildings and need to pay teachers more. How about something different? We have already de-Bruced. We have given them Amendment 23. This is just textbook bait and switch,” he said.

Comparative mill levy rates

(Source: Colorado Department of Education)

Adams 12 Five Star 64.9

Jefferson County R-1 48.118

Cherry Creek 5 47.397

Denver County 39.210

Platte Canyon 26.696