Douglas County School District staff and committee members have painted a dire picture of problems plaguing district school buildings and property, and a financial plan for addressing the situation. But that plan would require voter approval, and some board members said they don't think that's likely.
At the June 17 school board meeting, members cited a still unstable national economy and state education funding distribution process they believe is unfair to Douglas County.
One person in the audience scolded the board for years of inaction on the mounting problems, saying it owes the children a plan for fixing them.
DCSD has $275 million in unfunded capital needs over the next five years. Issues presented in the DCSD Long Range Planning Committee's 2014-15 Capital Master Plan include aging buses, boilers and roofs; outdated technology; cracked parking lots; unraveling carpet; safety and security needs; and new construction prompted by near-capacity schools.
“This seems urgent to me,” said new DCSD chief operations officer Thomas Tsai, who replaced recently retired longtime COO Bill Moffitt. “Our bond funds are gone. We're now working with a zero sum amount of resourcing for the things we need to do to keep our buildings open.
“Now we look at a 15-year-old roof and our concern and our ability is not, `Can we replace the entire thing?' It's, `Where is the most likely area of the roof that is going to suffer catastrophic failure?' We don't do this in our personal lives. Yet for some reason when it's a public asset, we somehow lack the urgency.”
For every year the capital needs aren't addressed, the dollar amount needed to fix them increases by $35 million, said chief financial officer Bonnie Betz.
“It grew $35 million this last year. It grew $35 million the year before that,” she told the board. “It will continue to grow until we do something about this.”
Betz's refinancing proposal would allow DCSD to leverage additional funds without increasing county residents' school-related taxes. Without such action, taxpayers eventually will see a decrease in their annual tax obligation to the schools.
The idea, which could be put to a vote as soon as November, would allow county residents “to help us maintain our $900 million worth of facilities in a manner that will not have a huge impact on our taxpayers,” Betz said.
Voters passed a similar refinancing mechanism in the Littleton Public Schools district last November.
Betz said the plan also would allow DCSD to catch up on its capital needs during a short window of slow growth in Douglas County. While residential growth flagged during the recession, it's bouncing back, and projections indicate a dramatic influx of new students in about five years.
Board member Jim Geddes suggested the district look at the most critical issues and find ways to address them.
“I think the political environment right now and for the next year or two is going to be prohibitive on asking the taxpayer for any increase whatsoever,” he said. “Our average middle-class citizen right now is under great financial duress across the country. Secondly, this is a very conservative community still, and there's a political bias.”
“We are not in a place where I think we're going to be successful,” board member Craig Richardson said. “I think many Douglas County residents have a very well-founded view we are exporting a lot of cash in this district to Denver. We have high incomes and we're paying high income taxes … and we're getting a paltry sum back.”
Until that issue is resolved, Richardson said he's skeptical county residents will endorse any financing measure.
Highlands Ranch resident Cindy Barnard — president of Taxpayers for Public Education and a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the school district — urged the board to find a solution.
“There are no more Band-Aids,” she said. “Our buildings are falling apart and you're not taking care of them. The kids that are in our buildings don't get another chance at their education.”
The most pressing issues — those planners said could interrupt students' education — add up to about $25 million. Board members suggested that the most-urgent punch-list also should also include some safety, security and transportation-related items.