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Douglas County Schools

School funding ballot measure gaining support

Voters may not be asked to raise taxes until 2018

Posted

The often-divided Douglas County School District community is rallying in favor of a common idea: raising taxes.

"This is a first for me," said board of education President Meghann Silverthorn. "I've had citizens approach me and say 'Hey, I want taxes,' and I don't just mean the usual folks who have always wanted an increase, I mean conservatives who say 'I hate taxes, but it's clear to me that we can't compete or the district needs more money.' "

But while some in the community were pushing to get a mill levy override and/or a bond issue on this year's ballot, a joint committee commissioned by the school board to study the issue is recommending to hold off on that until 2018.

The panel - which comprises members of the District Accountability Committee, Long Range Planning Committee and Fiscal Oversight Committee - issued that advice at the school board's March 7 meeting.

"Doing it right is vastly more important than doing it now," said Brad Geiger, a member of the joint committee and the chairman of the Long Range Planning Committee.

In recent years, the district has faced funding shortages and rising capital needs at schools across the district. In 2015, the Long Range Planning Committee - a group of community members and parents who study the district's capital needs - estimated the cost at $275.1 million for current and future projects over five years. The committee identified the following major areas of need: facility reinvestment $133.6 million; technology, $53 million; and new construction to accommodate growth, $38.8 million.

Committee members - whose recommendation is not a binding decision that the school board is required to follow - said one benefit of waiting until 2018 is that the ballot will include the governor's race, which likely will increase voter turnout. Also, waiting a year would provide time to gather community support. In addition, they concluded it was best to not ask the community for a tax increase during the school board election in 2017, as it would become a campaign issue.

All seven school board members agree on the need to ask taxpayers for more money, but some questioned if the need was too great to wait until 2018. One of those was Steve Peck.

"I support the idea that we should have a mill levy override," Peck said. "What I'm not certain of is the timing."

Board member David Ray, who had expressed some reservations about waiting until 2018, decided to support the recommendation of holding off a year. He said a tax measure is "long overdue" and that its importance to the community is paramount.

"It has been proven many times over that the investment in the school system has a direct correlation on the success of the surrounding community - including quality of life, economic stability, property values and the success of our learners," Ray said.

Meg Masten, a community member who helped organize a town hall event regarding district budget issues in February, said "long term, a bond or mill levy is the only way to solve our funding issue."

Masten supports waiting until 2018 to put a measure on the ballot.

"We need at least 12 months to gain the support needed to get it passed," Masten said. "There just isn't enough time."

Jason Virdin of the group Douglas County Parents, which advocates for parents and students in the district, also agreed with the 2018 timetable.

"Until the state begins funding schools adequately, school districts will be forced to seek funding locally," he said. "Passing a bond will require a significant community outreach effort, community trust and a unified school board."

Douglas County residents said no the past two times school-funding issues made the ballot.

The community voted down a $200 million bond issue in 2011 that would have gone toward building three new schools in Castle Rock and Parker and a $29 million mill levy override that would have provided funding for instructional expenses and pay-for-performance for teachers.

In 2008, Douglas County voters rejected a $395 million bond issue and a $17 million mill levy override to support building new schools, improving student achievement, recruiting and retaining the workforce and improving the district's technological advances in the face of expanded enrollment.

The official decision on when and if to send funding measures to the ballot will be made by the school board.

Silverthorn, who has not stated whether she supports 2017 or 2018 for the tax measure, agrees with the idea that the community needs to present a united front in order to garner support from prospective voters, saying "we prove to people we will be wise with their money."

"We have to have a conversation as a community about how we unite around the idea that we need money for our schools," she said, "and not throw bombs in such a way that it doesn't help that end."

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