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School districts test voters’ mood

Despite the fragile economy and perceived voter grumpiness about taxes, 33 Colorado school districts are seeking tax increases in this election, for construction bonds, operating revenue or to provide Amendment 61 escape hatches.

Among the larger districts proposing bond issues are Falcon ($125 million), Poudre/Fort Collins ($120 million) and Mapleton ($32 million).

Larger districts seeking mill levy overrides – higher taxes for operating expenses – include Boulder ($22.5 million), Brighton ($3.2 million), Durango ($3.2 million), Littleton ($12 million) and Poudre ($16 million).

The list of districts was compiled and released by the Colorado School Finance Project, a research and advocacy organization.

Colorado voters have a generally positive history of passing bond issues and overrides. But ballot measure prospects this year could be complicated by the economy, voter emotions about government and taxes and the presence on the ballot of statewide amendments 60 and 61 and Proposition 101, three complex and controversial measures that could mean dramatic cuts in state and local revenues if passed.

But other factors have pushed districts to seek more money, including the need to raise matching funds for state Build Excellent Schools Today grants and a desire to replenish operating budgets that have been squeezed by cuts in state school aid.

Referring to that budget squeeze, Bruce Caughey, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, said, “These districts have looked at the writing on the wall, and they’ve decided now is the best time to ask.”

There are “two schools of thought” among districts, Caughey said, with others probably waiting until 2011 in hopes the economy may improve and voters will be less uncomfortable about raising taxes.

Ken DeLay, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, echoed those comments, saying, “A lot of school districts are looking at their bottom line … and trying to hold onto the programs they’ve got. … A lot is really driven by the financial condition of the state.”

DeLay added, “Whether any of them will pass is anyone’s guess.”

Bond issues

Only Falcon, which is dealing with enrollment growth, and Poudre, which wants to upgrade technology, security and building conditions, are seeking “stand alone” bond issues, for a total of $245 million.

Eight other districts have proposed bond issues totaling $76.5 million to match BEST grants. The largest request is Mapleton’s $32 million, followed by Salida’s $17.9 million.

Overrides and Amendment 61

Some 23 districts are seeking overrides. The notable requests include:

  • 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.

The Summit County district has proposed a combined measure that includes $2.1 million to offset state budget cuts and $3.5 million to cover cash flow needs if Amendment 61 passes.

Only two other districts, East Grand and Estes Park, have proposed ballot measures related just to Amendment 61, the first for $4 million and the second for $2.5 million.

Because Amendment 61 would ban state debt, the treasurer’s office last summer canceled a loan program used by some school districts to manage their cash flow. That’s a problem for some districts, especially those with large local and small state revenues, because local property taxes aren’t paid until the second half of the budget year.

(See the full list of proposed ballot measures here.)

Mixed results in last two years

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.

In 2008 there were 27 bond issues proposed, with about half passing and half failing. Notable losers, according to Department of Education records, included Adams 12, Brighton, Douglas County, Jefferson County, Mapleton and Mesa County. But Aurora, Cherry Creek, Denver and St. Vrain passed bonds, among others.

Only three districts sought overrides 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, according to CASE. (See this CDE web page for links to information on bond issues and overrides.)

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