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Bloodbath for district tax plans

Updated Nov. 2. – Voters rejected more than three-quarters of the tax increases proposed by Colorado school districts, leaving boards and administrators to shelve construction plans and eat budget cuts they had hoped to cover.

Of the 43 bond issues and mill levy overrides proposed by 36 districts, only 11 were approved by voters. (Overrides are proposals to increase property tax rates to raise money for operating expenses.)

Six of the measures approved were to raise local matching funds for state dollars from the Building Excellent Schools Today program. Six other BEST matching proposals were defeated by voters.

Only three middle-sized districts saw proposals approved – Cheyenne Mountain, Englewood and Roaring Fork.

The largest measures approved were Englewood’s $50 million bond issue and Roaring Fork’s $4.2 million override.

The list of losers among larger districts was longer: Brighton, Douglas County (two measures), Eagle County, Falcon (two measures), Mesa 51, Pueblo County (two measures), Sheridan and Thompson.

Englewood’s bond and an $1.5 million override were on the edge until Wednesday evening, when the Arapahoe County clerk’s website, with all votes finally counted, reported that the bond passed 52 percent to 48 percent and the override squeaked by 51.15 percent yes to 49.85 percent no. Total votes cast were about 4,700.

Even though Englewood was the fifth and last alternate on the BEST priority list, it looks like it will win its match. Two finalists eligible for BEST grants lost their local match bids, leaving nearly $24 million of state money on the table. And the top four alternates also failed to pass their matches. The State Capital Construction Assistance Board meets Thursday to reallocate the 2011-12 grants.

Here are the winners:

  • Big Sandy/Simla – $2.9 million bond for BEST match
  • Byers – $330,000 override
  • Cheyenne Mountain – $1.7 million override
  • Ellicott – $2.4 million BEST match
  • Englewood – $50 million bond ($43 million for construction and $8 million for a BEST match), $1.5 million override
  • Idalia – $3.9 million BEST match
  • Prairie/New Raymer – $3.4 million BEST match
  • Roaring Fork – $4.2 million override
  • Sanford – $2.1 million BEST match
  • Sierra Grande (Costilla County) – $335,000 override

“I don’t have any great insights … except this is not the time because of the economy,” said Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards. “I know some of those folks [district leaders] thought they could pull it off, but a number of them were very worried.

“It’s a sign of the times.”

Dougco’s $200 million bond issue was the largest proposed in the state this year. Dougco, Englewood, Falcon and Pueblo County were the only districts that proposed both bond issues and overrides for operating expenses.

The following chart shows results for major proposals. Measures that passed are in darker type. Full results available here, compiled by the Colorado School Finance Project. Article continues after chart.

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Bond and override background

More than half a billion dollars in property tax revenue was sought in the election, primarily to build or renovate buildings and to bolster operating budgets that have been squeezed by losses in state aid.

The bulk of the revenue, about $480 million, was for bond issues.

About a dozen districts, many of them small, sought a total of more than $50 million in bond funds to match potential grants from the state’s Building Excellent Schools Today program. Five of those districts, including Englewood and Sheridan in the metro area, are on the BEST waiting list. Even if those voters approve the bonds, the districts won’t receive state money unless some districts higher up the priority list lose their elections.

The more than $560 million proposed by local districts this year is less than the total that was on ballots in 2010, when 31 districts sought $738 million in bond issues and operating revenue increases.

Despite concerns that economic woes would dampen voter interest in raising taxes, districts did pretty well last fall. Voters approved $595.8 million in bonds and operating increases and rejected only $142.5 million worth.

Major proposals at a glance

School under construction
School under construction

Here are snapshots of tax proposals in larger districts, listed in order of enrollment size.Douglas County – $200 million bond issue for facilities, technology and other spending and $20 million of increased spending authority for operations, including a pay-for-performance program.

Mesa 51 – $12.5 million of increased taxing authority for eight years to restore teaching positions, add technology and stabilize revenues.

Thompson – $12.8 million, 12-year override to fund class size, new programs and technology.

Brighton – $4.8 million override to maintain class sizes, buy instructional materials and reduce fees. (A 2010 override was defeated.)

Falcon –$85 million bond issue for construction and a $5 million override. (Voters rejected a bond issue last year.)

Pueblo County –$35 million bond issue for facilities and a $3.4 million override to reduce class sizes, restore teaching jobs and expand vocational programs.

Eagle County – $6 million override to maintain class sizes, reduce cutbacks in extracurricular activities and replace buses and computers.

Smaller districts seeking large bond issues include Englewood ($50 million) and Archuleta County/Pagosa Springs ($49 million).

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