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Greeley, Mapleton hope voters are in giving mood

Mapleton school officials are hoping the third time’s the charm as they try again to convince voters in the Adams County district to approve a $30.2 million bond and a $1.9 million mill levy override. Voters turned down mill levy requests in 2008 and 2007, and haven’t approved a bond issue since 1992.

Meanwhile, school officials in Weld County District 6 – Greeley and Evans – have never gone to voters seeking a mill levy increase … until now. And they’re asking for a whopper: $16 million. Officials point out that because of past reluctance to ask voters for more money, the district now ranks 170th out of 178 Colorado districts in per-pupil funding.

Here’s a closer look at these two closely-watched school funding elections, both of which will be decided by mail-in ballot on Tuesday.

In Weld County

School officials are hoping that the support of the local newspaper and the business community can overcome voter reluctance to raise taxes in an economy like this. “The timing is not what people would like it to be,” says school board president Bruce Broderius, who acknowledges that informal polls show the measure appears to be trailing among voters.

A citizen’s group, Greeley/Evans Citizens for Strong Schools, has taken the lead on campaigning for passage of the mill levy. Arguments in favor of the increase:

  • The district is so strapped for cash, students aren’t allowed even to take textbooks home because there aren’t enough to go around. Officials promise that with the tax increase, within seven years every student will have individual textbooks for every core academic course, all middle and high school students will have their own math and English textbooks within two years, and all schools will have updated computers and software within five years.
  • Existing academic programs such as art, music, physical education, as well as International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement and magnet programs, will be maintained; career preparation and college readiness programs will be expanded; and elementary literacy and math classes will be kept small.
  • Ten years after the Columbine shootings, no school in the district has yet installed a security camera, nor have any installed devices to limit access into schools. Officials promise video monitoring in all middle and high schools, and buzzer-controlled entry for the main doors of elementary schools within two years.
  • The district’s school bus fleet averages 14 years per vehicle – that’s nearly twice as old as the state average – and some 25-year-old buses are used daily. If the increase passes, officials promise to buy newer buses, and to have enough in the fleet that middle and high schools can start and end their day at the same time.

Arguments against the increase boil down to money. A 16-mill increase would mean taxes on a $200,000 home would increase more than $250 a year. Taxes on commercial property would be almost quadruple that – $464.64 for every $100,000 of assessed value.

Talk show host Amy Oliver, director of operations for the conservative Independence Institute, has led opposition to the mill levy request, especially at her blog, “Citizens Against School Bullies.” In an opinion column in the Greeley Tribune, she wrote, “Based on information from the Colorado Department of Education, District 6 spent $9,049 per pupil in fiscal year 2007-2008. For $9,049 District 6 taxpayers get below-average scores on state standardized tests, below-average graduation rates, above regional average for teacher salaries, and 557 central administration employees, roughly one for every 33 students.” She disputes the notion that greater per-pupil spending equates to greater student achievement.

Conditions in the district got so bad that it was put on academic watch by the Colorado Department of Education four years ago. “That woke the community up,” says Broderius. “Based on our strategic plan and our successes since then, we came off right away. But people recognized that our achievement was not what it could be.”

He says the district – one of the few in Colorado where voters have never been asked for a mill levy override – for too long operated under the assumption that such a request was doomed to fail, even though voters have approved bond issues in the past.

“Conventional wisdom was that you just could not be successful,” Broderius said. “When I first came onto the board, the superintendent said ‘No how, no way, not on my watch, I’ll never support that.’ Then we had a new superintendent come in who said we just haven’t had enough success to make a good case to voters. Now we have Ranelle Lang, and she said this was serious. We’re not moving fast enough and we can’t take the next steps. So now the challenge is out there.”

Two important campaign points that school officials hope will sway otherwise reluctant voters: The districts three charter schools will also get a share of the increased revenue, a promise no other Colorado school district has made before. And none of the mill levy increase would go to pay salaries. In fact, just last week the school board, mired in difficult contract negotiations with teachers, voted to freeze district salaries for everything except educational attainment.

But even the salary freeze isn’t likely to be the last painful step the district must take. “I don’t see how we can escape this problem again,” Broderius says. “Seventy-five percent of our budget comes from the state, and when the state funding takes a nosedive, like it will, I just don’t see where the money will come from to run the schools. I don’t feel very good about this. We’ll do the best we can, but the consequences if we don’t are serious.”

In Mapleton

The last time Mapleton schools went to the public seeking more money – a $64 million bond issue and $2.97 million mill levy override – voters overwhelmingly said no. That was last November. The year before, a $70 million request met a similar fate.

But this year, things are different.

Officials are asking for less – $30.2 million in bond money, plus a $1.9 million mill levy override – and they’re tying their request to a new state capital construction program called BEST, short for Building Excellent Schools Today. Under the BEST program, the state will foot the costs of 59% of building construction and renovations costs, provided local school districts come up with the remaining 41%. This summer, Mapleton was awarded a $31.9 million BEST grant, the largest such grant in the state.

Now, Mapleton school officials must convince voters to finally say yes.

So far, no organized opposition to the tax increase has emerged. In fact, those who rallied to defeat the request in 2008 seem to be on board now.

“I think everything is fine,” says Mike Paulino, vice president of Paulino Gardens, and an organizer of Mapleton Citizens for Sensible Taxes, the group that led opposition to last year’s bond and mill levy request. “They’re going to get some money from the state, so the bond won’t be as large as it was last year. They do need to fix some of the schools, and now they’ll be able to do it for much less. As far as I know, there’s no opposition to this.”

If approved, the taxes on a $150,000 home in the district would go up about $85 a year, while commercial real estate taxes would increase by almost $215 per year per $100,000 of property value.

With the additional mill levy money, the district would buy updated textbooks, library books, math and science supplies, recruit top quality teachers, and offer more vocational and college prep classes to students. Plans for the bond money include a $50 million renovation of the Skyview campus, near 88th Avenue and York Street. Three new buildings on the campus would house Skyview Academy, Clayton Partnership School, Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts, Mapleton Early College, and the new North Valley School for Young Adults. New roofs for two other schools are also in the plans.

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