I always make it a practice to ask my Metro State journalism students to explain what a mill levy is, because few things are more central to covering governments than understanding how taxing entities get money from the public.
Usually, the students look at me as if I’m speaking in an obscure Klingon dialect: A mill? A levy? What are those, and what do they have to do with government funding? These are typically intelligent, well-informed students, and they have not the slightest idea what I’m going on about.
But it’s actually quite simple: A levy is a tax. A mill is a tenth of a cent. A mill levy determines the amount of property tax a homeowner pays to a school district or fire district or wastewater district.
As Jeffco Public Schools gears up to ask voters for a property-tax increase, you will hear one phrase repeated over and over by district officials: “mill-levy override.” But don’t be fooled; the owner of a home in the school district now pays a certain amount annually in property taxes to support Jeffco schools. If voters approve the “override,” that same homeowner will pay more.
The district’s hope that tricky terminology will make a tax increase more palatable is ironic at best and disingenuous at its very worst. My own hope is that an entity charged with educating our future voters would be more straightforward and not try to camouflage its intentions.
Besides, it’s not difficult to make a credible case that the district needs more support from taxpayers. Teaching positions have been cut. Reserves have been drawn down. The Outdoor Lab Schools are now dependent on private funding.
Still, a school district in need of more public support should spend the dollars it does have wisely, and that should not include the district’s annual $5,000 contribution to the Jefferson County Economic Development Corp. headed by former county commissioner Kevin McCasky.
A school district strapped for funds ought to be spending every available dollar in its classrooms and letting others worry about economic development. And the recent ruling by the Colorado Ethics Commission that McCasky violated two state ethics laws as he transitioned from public official to high-paid EDC president makes a district contribution to the EDC even more dubious.
This is a critical time for Jeffco schools. Many of us believe that the district does need more tax money to successfully prepare students for an increasingly competitive job market — and for being responsible and well-informed members of a democracy. But it should start the campaign by calling a tax increase a tax increase, and by spending all its current resources directly on educating kids.
Doug Bell is the editor of the Courier.