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$1 billion on the line for education

Decisions about more than $1 billion in funding for education are facing voters in Colorado’s Nov. 1 election.

More than half a billion dollars in property tax revenue is being sought by 35 Colorado school districts, primarily to build or renovate buildings and to bolster operating budgets that have been squeezed by losses in state aid.

Voters statewide also will decide on Proposition 103, which would increase state income and sales taxes by about $514 million in the first year to provide additional state aid for preschool, K-12 and state higher education programs. (Get background in this article.)

The more than $560 million proposed by local districts 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. (Get details about last year’s tax votes in this article and see the list here.)

The Douglas County schools are on top of this year’s list, asking voters to approve a $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. Dougco is the state’s third-largest district by enrollment. (See this article for details on the proposals.)

Other top requests

Several other larger districts also have measures on the ballot this year, including:

Mesa 51 – The state’s 12th largest district is seeking a $12.5 million override for eight years to restore teaching positions, add technology and stabilize revenues.

Thompson – Voters will decide on a $12.8 million, 12-year override to fund class size, new programs and technology. The district is the 16th largest.

Brighton – Voters in the 17th largest district will decide on a $4.8 million override to maintain class sizes, buy instructional materials and reduce fees. A 2010 override was defeated.

Falcon – The 18th largest district is asking voters for an $85 million bond issue for construction and a $5 million override. Voters rejected a bond issue last year.

Pueblo County – The school board is asking for a $35 million bond issue for the state’s 22nd largest district. The  district also wants a $3.4 million override to reduce class sizes, restore teaching jobs and expand vocational programs. (Douglas County, Englewood, Falcon and Pueblo County are the only districts seeking both bonds and operating increases.)

Eagle County – The 28th largest district is seeking a $6 million override to maintain class sizes, reduce cutbacks in extracurricular activities and replace buses and computers.

DEFINITIONSBond issue– A district sells bonds to raise construction funds and pays bondholders over several years with the property tax increase approved by voters.Override– Districts receive additional revenue for general operating expenses, special costs like technology upgrades or facilities improvements when voters approve an increase in the general property tax rate.BEST program – District bond revenues are combined with state funds to pay off lease-purchase agreements that are used to raise construction funding.Bond & BEST proposals

Statewide the bulk of the spending requested this year is for bond issues to build or renovate school facilities. Of the $564 million requested, more than $475 million is for bonds.

After Douglas County, the largest bond proposals are from Falcon, Pueblo County, Englewood ($50 million) and Archuleta County/Pagosa Springs ($49 million).

About a dozen districts, many of the small, are seeking a total of more than $50 million in bond funds to raise matching money for state Building Excellent School Today grants. Three of those districts, Englewood, Peyton in El Paso County and Sheridan, are proposing combination bonds that would raise money for BEST matches and for other district projects.

Big Sandy, Elbert, Idalia, Prairie and Sanford – all districts with fewer than 350 students apiece – hope to build new K-12 schools. (The first four are on the eastern plains; Sanford is in the San Luis Valley.)

Five districts are in the odd position of hoping other BEST applicants don’t pass their bond issues. That’s because the five are BEST alternates, meaning that even if they pass their bonds, they won’t receive state funds unless other districts lose their elections and forfeit eligibility for state aid. The alternates, in priority order, are Lake County (Leadville), Sheridan, Ignacio (Four Corners area), Peyton (El Paso County) and Englewood. (See this article for details about 2011 proposed BEST grants.)

Operating increase requests

In addition to the larger districts detailed above, here are some other districts seeking tax increases to fund operating costs:

  • Cheyenne Mountain – $1.7 million.
  • Englewood – $1.5 million
  • Garfield 16 (Parachute and Battlement Mesa) – $4.8 million
  • Garfield Re-2 (Rifle area) – $3 million
  • Roaring Fork (Glenwood Springs) – $4.2 million
  • Weld Re-1 (Platteville area) – $1.8 million

Two districts, Byers and Sierra Grande in the San Luis Valley, are seeking voter approval of operating increases that will be used to match BEST cash grants.

Some statistical notes

Here are some numbers to help put this year’s tax proposals in context:

  • In 2010 all units of local government – counties, cities, schools and special districts – collected about $6.8 billion in property taxes, according to data collected by the state Department of Local Affairs.
  • School districts accounted for about $3.4 billion of those property taxes. Total district local revenue was $4.2 billion 2009-10, according to the Department of Education. (That includes revenue districts receive from vehicle taxes.) Districts receive additional state, federal and grant funds.
  • Total school spending in 2019-10 was about $10.2 billion, according to CDE data.

See the full list of 2011 bond and operating tax proposals.

Information for this story was gathered from the Colorado School Finance Project and the state Division of Public School Capital Construction Assistance.

Correction: This story was corrected on Sept. 30 to reflect that the Pueblo County schools are seeking a $3.3 million override, not the Pueblo City district.