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Election 2010: Voters in a generous mood

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Updated 11 a.m. Nov. 4 – Six of the 11 bond issues proposed by 10 Colorado schools districts were approved by voters, according to results compiled by the Colorado School Finance Project.

Voters in 15 districts approved tax increases to support operating costs. In six districts voters said no to such override proposals. Results weren’t known for one small district, Pritchett.

A bond issue in the growing Falcon district failed, as did one in Peyton. A $120 million bond proposal in the Poudre district passed. (Incomplete returns Wednesday had indicated the Peyton proposal was passing.)

Eight districts, including Peyton, proposed bonds specifically to match state Building Excellent Schools Today grants. Proposals passed in Center, Holly, Mapleton and Salida but failed in Elbert, Florence and Peyton.

Akron was designated previously as an alternate if other districts failed to raise their matches, and the district passed its bond, putting it in line for BEST money. The state construction board meets next week to decide what to do in the wake of Tuesday’s election.

Among districts that passed operating tax overrides were Aspen, Boulder Valley, Durango, Littleton, Poudre and Summit County. Among larger districts, only Brighton voters rejected an override proposal.

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Text of Tuesday evening story follows.

Colorado voters on Tuesday were handing the “big three” – ballot measures 60, 61 and 101 – a resounding defeat while results were mixed for some of the 33 school districts asking for tax increases.

The Boulder Valley School District’s $22.5 million tax question to restore budget cuts and Mapleton’s $32 million bond issue – a required match for state school construction dollars – were heading to victory shortly after 11 p.m.

But results were less favorable for the Falcon School District’s $125 million bond issue to cope with enrollment growth in El Paso County. And voters appeared to be rejecting the Brighton School District’s $3.2 million tax request to boost its operating budget.

“Although we are disappointed by the apparent trending outcome of this election, we respect the collective voice of the 27J community,” said Brighton Superintendent Rod Blunck. “I would like to express our sincere thanks and appreciation for the show of support in this evening’s election.

“Early on, we recognized the difficult economic times facing our nation, our state and our community and particularly our schools but we were optimistic that our positive efforts would allow for the resources that we believe are necessary to move forward.”

Results were not yet available late Tuesday for many of the other school districts seeking approval of tax questions.

For educators statewide, much of this year’s election attention has been focused on the three ballot initiatives seen as potentially crippling for district budgets.

Scores of school boards across the state passed resolutions opposing the three initiatives and many districts – including Denver and Douglas County – created financial contingency plans to swing into action if they should pass.

But those don’t appear to be necessary. Early returns showed voters rejecting the measures by margins of roughly 2-to-1 and a celebratory party by opponents at the downtown Denver Athletic Club was breaking up by 9 p.m.

“The defeat of the ‘Bad Three’ means educators and voters have spoken with one voice against measures that would have crippled public education and prevented our state’s economy from recovering,” said Beverly Ingle, president of the Colorado Education Association.

“The defeat of 60, 61, and 101 is a great victory for Colorado,” Ingle said. “It gives us confidence that a broad, diverse group of interests can advance a civil dialogue about how to address problems in our state.”

Colorado teachers “walked across this state, knocking on doors,” said CEA executive director Tony Salazar. “Teachers are a credible voice, engaging people in the community, telling people what was at stake.”

The three amendments

Here’s some of what the three amendments proposed to do:

  • Amendment 60 – The constitutional amendment would have required school districts to halve their property tax rates by 2020, not including taxes levied for debt, such as bond issues. The state would be required to cover the lost revenue.
  • Amendment 61 – The constitutional amendment would have banned all forms of borrowing by state government, including certificates of participation.
  • Proposition 101 – The proposed change to state law would, over time, have reduced specific ownership taxes on vehicles to $2 for new vehicles and $1 for used ones, limited title and license fees to $10 a year and abolished taxes on vehicle rentals and leases.

The amendments were widely opposed by business, civic, education and government groups and by elected officials from both parties.

The main opposition group, Coloradans for Responsible Reform, raised nearly $7 million for a high-intensity advertising campaign opposing the measures. The group received significant contributions from businesses, including construction companies, the financial industry and real estate business, and from labor unions, including the National Education Association and the CEA.

Dan Hopkins, spokesperson for the “no” group, called the results “decisive.”

“This is huge for education,” he said. “Every one of these issues attacked education – its funding, its bonding, its building.This vote saved education in Colorado.”

While the opposition advertising campaign focused heavily on a simple message – the amendments threatened jobs and the economy – educators had a more complex set of worries about the three.

Those concerns included an unacceptable shift of school funding from local districts to the state, squeezing out other state programs; tighter restrictions on district borrowing and a ban on state borrowing, and a provision that would have required state universities and colleges to pay property taxes.

Opponents believed the proposed ban on state borrowing would have ended the state loan program for district cash flow needs, killed the Build Excellent Schools Today or BEST K-12 construction program and crippled higher education building projects.

Three school districts sought ballot measures that would have offset the effects of Amendment 61, should it pass. East Grand wanted $4 million to deal with potential cash-flow problems, while Summit County asked for $3.5 million and Estes Park sought $2.5 million.

District tax proposals for bond issues

Despite the fragile economy and perceived voter backlash against taxes, 30 other Colorado school districts sought tax increases for construction bonds or operating revenue.

Among the larger districts proposing bond issues were Falcon, Mapleton and the Poudre district including Fort Collins, which sought $120 million for security, technology and building upgrades. The Poudre proposal had a slim lead in preliminary ballot returns.

Altogether, eight districts proposed bond issues totaling $76.5 million to match BEST grants. The largest request was Mapleton’s $32 million, followed by Salida’s $17.9 million. One district, Akron, is the alternative on the BEST list and will receive funds only if some other districts fail to raise their matches and Akron voters approve their match.

If preliminary ballot returns hold true, Falcon and the Peyton school district, also in El Paso County, could cede their BEST matches to Akron.

In 2009, only five districts sought bond issues. Mapleton needed $30.1 million to match a BEST grant but lost narrowly. The other issues in four small districts passed.

District tax requests for operating dollars

Larger districts seeking tax increases for operating expenses included:

  • Boulder, $22.5 million to restore budget cuts, expand early childhood education and improve staff pay.
  • Poudre, $16 million to offset losses in state aid and to maintain class sizes and restore cut positions.
  • Littleton, $12 million to offset state cuts and maintain classes sizes and workforce.
  • Brighton, $3.2 million to hire new teachers and fund instructional materials and new technology.
  • Durango, $3.2 million to maintain class sizes and attract qualified teachers.

Several factors pushed districts to seek more money this year, including the desire to replenish operating budgets that have been squeezed by cuts in state school aid.

Late Tuesday, results showed voters approving tax increases in Boulder, Durango, Littleton and Poudre while rejecting the Brighton question. Aspen’s tax proposal also was winning approval.

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Only three districts sought operating tax increases last year, down substantially from the more than two dozen that proposed them in 2008, according to CASE. The largest 2009 request, Greeley’s $16 million, failed. Fewer than half the 2008 override proposals passed.

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