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District tax votes mark historic low

Voter rejection of 31 school district tax proposals Tuesday appears to mark an almost unprecedented low in voter support for district efforts to raise construction funds and increase operating budgets.

An Education News Colorado review of past elections found 2011’s very low success rate is in sharp contrast to voting patterns going back to the early 1980s.

One 2011 proposal, the $4.7 million bond issue in the Ignacio district, is undecided and headed to a recount because of a 523-523 tie vote.

School districts this year may have suffered a double hit from the weak economy. Recent years of state budget cuts prompted some districts to seek more local funding even though taxpayers were feeling stressed by the economy as well.

“People generally support their schools” but this year was different, said Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards.

Bond issues

According to Colorado Department of Education records, from 1981 to 2009 voters in districts around the state approved $9.2 billion of bond debt while they rejected only $2.6 billion worth. (Download spreadsheet with details by year and district.)

In only three of those years, 1987, 1988 and 1990, did the number of bond proposals rejected exceed the number passed. There were additional years when the number passed and the number rejected was roughly equal.

On Tuesday voters defeated bond issues in 11 districts and approved them in only six. One is tied. Approved measures totaled $64.7 million out of the $483 million worth that was proposed. Passage of Englewood’s $50 million bond accounts for most of the approved total. (See full article on Tuesday results.)

The only year that comes close to that ratio of rejection is 1988, when 13 bond issues were defeated and seven passed.

Tax overrides

Records on voter approval of mill levy overrides don’t go back as far, but they do show a similar pattern of past support.

According to CDE, 25 districts sought overrides in elections from 2005 to 2010. Sixteen of those passed, generating an additional $60.1 million in revenue a year for those districts. (Some overrides are permanent; some are limited to specific numbers of years.)

In that same time period, eight overrides worth $5.8 million failed.

This year, 17 override requests lost at the polls while a mere six passed. Only $5.9 million was approved out of the $86.3 million requested.

Recent history

The most recent elections, all during years after the economic slowdown hit, also show stronger voter support for district tax increases than was seen this year.

In 2010, six of 11 bond issues and 15 of 21 overrides passed (see article).

In 2009 only five districts sought bond issues. Mapleton narrowly lost a $30.1 million bond to match a Building Excellent Schools Today grant, but 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 CDE records, included Adams 12, Brighton, Douglas County, Jefferson County, Mapleton and Mesa 51. But Aurora, Cherry Creek, Denver and St. Vrain passed bonds, among others.

Only three districts sought overrides in 2009, according to the Colorado Association of School Executives. The largest request, Greeley’s $16 million, failed.

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