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Voices: Jeffco schools don't need more money

Sheila Atwell, the executive director of JeffCo Students First Action, won’t support proposed tax increases for Jeffco because she doesn’t believe the district uses its money wisely.

Despite the constant refrain that school funding has been slashed, or that Colorado funding is one of the lowest in the nation, the truth about overall spending is very different. Over the last decade, in which enrollment has declined, operational spending in Jeffco has increased 17 percent above the rate of inflation and funding from all sources has increased 16.3 percent above inflation.

Illustration of cash and magnifying glass

The good news is that the Colorado Legislative Council budget forecast shows that nearly $700 million in additional funding will be transferred to the state K-12 education fund for 2013-2014. The commissioner may have told the district not to count on additional funds and to budget for flat funding, but does anyone think our legislators won’t allocate that money to K-12 funding?

Why should Jeffco citizens vote for a permanent 15 percent tax rate increase to cover a temporary funding dip? (The percent increase was calculated based upon the current mill levy tables and the attached spreadsheet explains our methodology.) The percentage increase may be even higher if the board decides to keep collecting the mills for the 1992 bonds that will be paid off in December. The district has not clearly stated they will return those taxes. When housing values recover, the district will have more revenue.

Is Jeffco really the lowest-funded district?

The proponents of the tax increase have brought out a new set of statistics that ostensibly shows Jeffco to be the lowest-funded district in the metro area. These numbers exclude certain categories of funding. When all sources of funding are included, Jeffco spends over $11,000 per student, which is well in line with spending in surrounding districts. (I came up with the $11,000 by taking the total spending from all sources listed on the last page of the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports.)

Budgets are about choices and the school board in Jeffco has not made good choices. We hear about how the district prudently managed its budget and “strategically built up its reserves.” If so, why were those reserve funds not used to repair fire alarms, leaking roofs or to make electrical repairs? We keep hearing that these essential repairs have been postponed – why would that be if there has been a “rainy day” fund all along?

The district chose to spend the reserves on ongoing salary and benefits increases rather than urgent capital expenditures to keep students “warm, safe and dry.” Now the district is asking us to borrow $99 million with ballot issue 3B for funding to make those repairs. This is a fiscally irresponsible way to pay for maintenance. Do we really want to increase debt, forcing our children to be paying for these repairs 20 years from now? Interestingly, the district chief operating officer has explained that he designed the Jeffco bond financing so that they would need to go back to the taxpayer for increases every four to six years.

JeffCo Students First Action does not oppose spending more on schools, provided the proposed taxpayer dollars are invested in the classroom. This permanent tax increase allows the district to kick the can down the road on real structural reform – reform of an unsustainable salary and benefits schedule.

While it is true PERA increases are set by the Legislature, both Superintendent Cindy Stevenson and Chief Operating Officer Steve Bell have admitted that the district can determine who pays for those increases.

Fact: In 2004, a mill levy was passed that increased taxes by $38.5 million per year permanently. Since that time, PERA contributions have increased $31 million. So the 2004 override that passed because the community was promised class sizes would be kept small has found its way into retirement spending and parents are again threatened with larger class sizes. The taxpayer is being asked for a $39 million permanent tax increase – PERA contributions will rise $22 million in the next several years. These increases may have been budgeted for, but at the expense of which programs?

Of course, the dedicated parents pursuing the tax increase are fearful of cuts to their classrooms and favored programs. The district designed it that way. The budget can be balanced without firing teachers or librarians or eliminating outdoor labs and instrumental music. We just don’t currently have a board with the will to make the tough choices that protect the classroom. These threats are unfair to citizens in Jeffco, many of whom are unemployed or have seen their household income decline.

Vote No on 3A & 3B – it is not “for the children.”

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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