Mill levy override puts focus on DCSD teachers

Ballot question asks voters to approve $40M tax hike to increase staff pay and address other issues

Posted 10/8/18

Tim Ottmann, principal of Ponderosa High School in Parker, recalls why a volleyball coach of 16 years who led the team to several state championships left the school three years ago for a position in …

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Mill levy override puts focus on DCSD teachers

Ballot question asks voters to approve $40M tax hike to increase staff pay and address other issues


Tim Ottmann, principal of Ponderosa High School in Parker, recalls why a volleyball coach of 16 years who led the team to several state championships left the school three years ago for a position in the Cherry Creek School District: a salary increase of $15,000.

In the past decade, Ottman estimates his school has lost 35 educators.

“Dealing with a staff that is constantly looking (to leave) is troublesome,” he said.

Several factors, including the district’s then-politics and policies, pushed social studies teacher Caley Mitchell in 2015 to leave the Castle View High School community in Castle Rock that she loved.

But the biggest reason was financial — a salary increase of $14,000.

“It was difficult to leave my friends …but it was not difficult to leave the policies and politics of Douglas County,” said Mitchell, who also was Castle View’s head softball coach. “If I was going to remain in teaching, I needed to be somewhere that values its teachers.”

Mitchell’s and Ottmann’s experiences aren’t unheard of in a school district that has had a steady turnover rate since the 2009-10 school year, when a reform-minded board of education was elected. That year, the turnover rate was 10.2 percent, according to the Colorado Department of Education. By 2013-14, the rate had risen to 17.3 percent.

Between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years, the school district’s teacher turnover rate was 13.4 percent, according to CDE. That would account for about 447 of the district’s 3,342 teachers.

While DCSD’s teacher turnover rate has generally been in line with the state average in recent years, it has been higher than in some neighboring districts. Between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years, for example, Cherry Creek’s turnover rate was 10.1 percent and Littleton’s was 9.5 percent.

Many parents and educators in Douglas County consider the teacher turnover rate detrimental to the high-achieving school district. In an effort to reverse that trend, the district is asking voters to approve a tax measure, Ballot Issue 5A, a $40 million mill levy override, that is largely aimed at keeping and attracting quality teachers. In addition to pay raises for teachers and staff, money would go toward school programs, special education and mental health.

If approved, the measure would mean a property tax increase of about $143 a year for the owner of a home valued at $474,000.

Disparities across county lines

Douglas County School District has not passed a mill levy override in 12 years. The lack of funding has caused large disparities in teacher pay across county lines and strained school programming, such as band and special education, district staff and parents say.

Cherry Creek School District, for example, receives $1,635 more per student in mill levy override funds. At DCSD’s current student count, that would equate to more than $100 million each year, according to the district.

In the 2017-18 school year, the average teacher salary at DCSD was $53,080 — roughly $18,631 less than Cherry Creek School District and $13,319 less than Littleton Public Schools.

The lack of competitive pay for teachers and staff members weighs on building leaders.

Pine Lane Elementary School in Parker has been in a “perpetual hiring process” for support staff, said school principal Chris Stairs.

This year, he can recall just one week when the school didn’t have a job posting online for a classified worker, which could be an educational assistant, bus driver or librarian.

“There’s no interest,” Stairs said. “We get them in and they realize, ‘This isn’t meeting the needs of our family.’ “

A look at the past

Because of budget shortages, district salaries were frozen from 2009-12.

In 2010, the reform-minded school board hired Elizabeth Fagen as superintendent, who two years later introduced a market-based pay system, which determined teacher pay by education, experience and skill, as well as by the supply and demand of the position.

In addition, raises were offered yearly based on effectiveness ratings ranging from “highly effective” to “ineffective” rather than on tenure and level of education. Many community members said the evaluation and salary systems spurred an exodus of quality educators.

Jess Becker, who taught business education at Ponderosa and was the DECA adviser during his nine years there, was one of those teachers. He left DCSD three years ago for the Cherry Creek School District.

“Even though I felt supported in the building, there was a very clear lack of support for teachers at the district level,” Becker said. “This was clear in a variety of ways, from the evaluation system to the bonds not being supported and lack of competitive pay.”

Even though the move to Cherry Creek increased his salary by $17,000, “it was not the main reason that I left,” Becker said. “When I had my new-teacher orientation for CCSD, I was blown away by the superintendent and what he had to say about education in this district. He talked about how important our jobs were because of how important kids are … He was saying exactly what I believe in and why I got into education in the first place.”

Fagen left for a superintendent job in Texas in summer 2016.

In September 2017, the Douglas County school board voted to suspend the differentiated pay structure for licensed teachers and administrators, replacing it for one year with uniform pay raises while it reassessed the pay-structure systems.

Voters elected four new members to the school board last November, which meant all the board’s seven members opposed a majority of the district’s reforms of the previous several years, paving the way for change.

In April, the school board hired Thomas Tucker as superintendent. Tucker previously served as superintendent of two school districts in Ohio. In his former roles, he was successful at helping his districts pass every bond and mill levy override put on the ballot.

Addressing unmet needs

In addition to concerns over teacher salaries, Tucker said, a decline in programming and career technical education opportunities at DCSD weighs heavily on him.

“Many times our students have different plans,” he said. “We need to make sure that after graduating high school they can get a good paying job, so they can take care of themselves.”

At Ponderosa High School, the counselor-to-student ratio is one to 350, according to Ottmann. Four counselors are spread among 1,375 students.

Across DCSD, one-third of students who register for career technical education are waitlisted, according to the district.

Kelly Mayr, a parent in the ThunderRidge High School feeder area of Highlands Ranch, is discouraged by cuts made to performing arts classes and band programs at the elementary and middle school level.

“Music was a place that they were very successful. They found other kids like themselves,” said Mayr, who has nine kids that have gone through Douglas County schools. “My son would’ve dropped out of high school without band.”

The mill levy override would address each of those concerns.

Of the mill levy override funds, $9 million would go toward school-level funding, including special education, gifted and talented programs and career- or trade-focused programming; $8 million would go toward charter schools; $6 million toward allocating a counselor to all elementary schools and lowering the rate at middle and high schools from one counselor per 350 students to one counselor per 250 students; and $17 million would go toward pay gaps.

Though the district can’t provide specifics of the pay increases — the board of education would approve those amounts should the mill levy override pass — it “will begin to address internal pay gaps as well as external pay gaps in an effort to begin to be more competitive with neighboring school districts,” said Amanda Thompson, the district’s chief human resources officer.

David Ray, school board president, said the mill levy override is crucial to the district’s future.

“The number one determinant of educational success for our students is the quality of the teachers we place in the classroom,” he said. “Unfortunately, our district has fallen significantly behind in our ability to retain teachers and staff. Funding from the proposed MLO will go directly to those who have the greatest impact on our students’ education.”


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