CASTLE ROCK – In an unusual split decision, Douglas County school board members voted 5-2 Tuesday night to ask voters on Nov. 1 for tax increases to boost operating and building dollars.

The board of self-described conservatives, who have stuck together in unanimous if controversial votes on issues such as vouchers and opposition to efforts to increase school funding statewide, differed on whether to ask for more money in tough economic times.

Justin Williams

“My little neighborhood has about a dozen homes for sale in it – many are in short sale or foreclosure,” said board member Justin Williams, one of the “no” votes. “Many of my friends are behind in their mortgages.”

Neither Williams nor board member Meghann Silverthorn, who cast the other dissenting vote, said they disagreed with the need for additional dollars or the district’s plan for spending the money.

In fact, Williams said there was “no debate” on those points, describing his son’s first-grade class of 34 students led by a teacher who works every weekend. He said Douglas County teachers haven’t received a pay raise in four years.

But, he said, too many friends have had their names in the newspaper when their homes go into foreclosure and they’re seeking help from family members, churches and even the state.

Doug Benevento

“It is my feeling the county is in worse shape than the school district,” he said.

Other board members ceded the economic reality of the lingering national recession but said they want to give voters the chance to decide.

“Ultimately, I think we need to find out what the voters want and what they’re willing to pay for,” said board member Doug Benevento. “If it fails, we won’t be going back for many years.”

Douglas County last sought tax increases for operating dollars and building needs in 2008. Both questions failed, as did half of the state’s school district tax ballot questions that year.

A “groundbreaking” pay-for-performance plan and up to 3 new schools

The district’s newest tax proposal is considerably less than was sought in 2008, which involved a $359 million bond issue and a $17 million increase for operating dollars.

This year’s questions are for a $200 million bond issue, which includes up to 3 new schools in Parker and Castle Rock, and a $20 million annual increase for instructional expenses, including funding a new pay-for-performance plan for teachers.

Questions 3A and 3B

  • Douglas County voters will be asked to approve a $200 million bond issue and a $20 million increase for operating expenses
  • The cost, based on an average home value of $340,000, is $45 annually – roughly $26 for the bond and $19 for the operating hike

Other districts’ tax questions

  • Thompson – $12.8 million operating increase
  • Roaring Fork – $4.8 million operating increase
  • Garfield Re-2, Rifle – $3 million operating increase

The cost to Douglas County residents, based on an average home value of $340,000, is another $45 per year for both increases – or, roughly, $26 for the bond issue and $19 for the mill-levy override, said Bonnie Betz, the district’s chief financial officer.

Because home values are dropping in Douglas County, as in many other areas, property tax bills are declining. Board member Dan Gerken pointed out the average tax bill is expected to drop $174 – if both tax measures pass, it will drop, instead, $129.

In their comments before voting, however, board members focused less on numbers than on one aspect of their plan for spending the additional dollars – a pay-for-performance plan for teachers that eliminates seniority.

“We have this whole amazing plan to reset the bar in American education,” said board member Cliff Stahl. “We’re not asking Douglas County voters to infuse money into the same old system.”

A six-page framework for the new system describes it as “competitive, market-value compensation,” in which teachers would be placed in a “market range” based on demand and factors such as whether they have multiple certifications and teach in a demographically challenging school.

Current teachers would have the option of moving into the new system – but only those in the new system would be able to earn more for reaching rigorous goals in evaluation, assessment and areas such as student engagement. For the first three years, teachers could earn up to $20,000 more each year. But after that, if they choose to move into a “total compensation” model, they could earn up to $100,000 a year.

The plan, which is still in development, could cost an additional $13 million per year in the first four years and up to $33 million annually in years five and beyond, according to the framework.

“Our teachers are professionals .. but they are not currently compensated like professionals,” said Gerken, noting the district’s top teacher pay is now $78,000.

Resolutions opposing other efforts to increase school funding statewide

Several school board members said they believe their efforts to pass what will be ballot questions 3A and 3B will be hurt by a statewide funding initiative known as Proposition 103.

That effort, led by state Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, would raise state income tax to 5 percent and state sales tax to 3 percent, their levels in 1999. The increases would be in effect for five years, generating $550 million a year that would be earmarked for increased funding of school districts and state colleges.

“I think it’s unfortunate this is going to be on the ballot this year,” said school board president John Carson. “This is just going to perpetuate the status quo funding system that is a total disservice to our county.”

Carson urged board members to “go on record” opposing Prop 103 and they did, voting 7-0 in support of a resolution outlining their opposition.

Similarly, board members voted 7-0 in support of their third resolution proclaiming their disfavor with the current Lobato vs. State funding trial, in which plaintiffs are asking a Denver judge to find Colorado’s K-12 funding is inadequate.

“I have no doubt if the plaintiffs are successful, our county will once again be on the short end of the redistribution of public education dollars in this state,” Carson said.

The board president, and other board members, frequently express dissatisfaction with a state funding system that “sends more money to Denver” and “cheats this county.”

Douglas County is dinged by a state funding formula that takes poverty into account. The affluent district has a student poverty rate – determined by eligibility for federal meal assistance – of less than 10 percent while its northern neighbor, Denver, has a poverty rate topping 70 percent.

This year, that formula means Dougco will receive $6,212 per student while Denver will receive $6,867 – a difference of $655 per pupil.

Daniels Fund enters voucher fight with $330,000 gift and potential for more

In back-to-back public comment sessions Monday and Tuesday, a few speakers have questioned whether board members should ask voters for more money while waging a legal battle in support of the district’s voucher pilot, declared unconstitutional Aug. 12 by a Denver judge.

News of a $330,000 gift to cover legal costs, and the potential for $200,000 more, may quiet some of those complaints.

Linda Childears, president and CEO of the Daniels Fund, said the Denver-based foundation’s interest in vouchers predates the Dougco pilot, which was approved March 15.

Bill Daniels, the late cable magnate who created the foundation, wasn’t interested in business as usual in K-12 education, she said.

“Bill loved free enterprise, he loved choice,” Childears said. “We really see this as a way for parents to have some choice and some control in their kids’ education.”

Dougco school board members, anticipating a court battle, created a legal fund when they established the voucher pilot. Before Daniels, the largest financial backer was oil and gas developer Alex Cranberg, who donated $50,000.

Daniels is donating $330,000 outright and offering $200,000 as a match – meaning district officials have to come up with a similar figure to secure that funding. There is no deadline on the match, Childears said.

Childears

Under the pilot, 500 Douglas County students would have received $4,575 each in public funding to attend private schools this fall. A Denver judge issued a permanent injunction halting the program this month after finding it violated five provisions of the Colorado Constitution and the state’s School Finance Act.

District spokesman Randy Barber on Tuesday put the district’s legal bills at $360,000 – and rising. The district faces a Sept. 26 deadline to file a notice of appeal with the Colorado Court of Appeals.

“I’m immensely proud that the Daniels Fund board has decided the reforms we’re pursuing are worthy of the legacy of Bill Daniels,” Carson, the board president, said at Tuesday’s meeting.

Disclosure: The Daniels Fund is a funder of Education News Colorado.