Updated 1:30 p.m. Wednesday
The first Jefferson County election results came in at 7:10 p.m. Tuesday, and the party room at Chad’s restaurant in Lakewood erupted in cheers.
By 7:30 p.m., happy supporters of Jeffco Public Schools’ ballot measures 3A and 3B had thrown all caution to the wind. Some were Tebowing in the middle of the party room, where they had gathered to watch election returns. Others were dancing like ponies, “Mitt Romney Style,” as popularized in a video parody of “Gangnam Style” making the YouTube rounds.
Lesley Dahlkemper, president of the Jeffco school board, had stationed herself by the door of the room and was hugging everyone who walked in.
“It was a good team. It was a great team,” she said. “Whew, I can breathe again.”
Colorado voters Tuesday were overwhelmingly in support of proposed school district tax increases, passing 35 such proposals, according to a review of unofficial results by the Colorado School Finance Project and Education News Colorado.
The 38 proposals on this year’s ballots totaled about $1.03 billion; the total approved was about $1.009 billion.
Here’s a rundown:
Six regular bond issues were passed and only one was defeated, in the Gilcrest district of Weld County.
Fifteen property tax overrides to fund district operations passed. One proposal, in the Cheyenne RE-2 district on the eastern plains, apparently was defeated.
Thirteen bond issues intended to raise matching money for the state Building Excellent Schools Today program passed. Only one, in the West End district of Montrose County, was defeated.
In Aspen voters approved a sales-tax increase proposed by the city but which will funnel revenue to the school district. So, 34 property tax measures and one sales tax hike were approved around the state.
Passage of Jeffco’s tax measures marks the first time voters have said yes to more money for the state’s largest school district since 2004.
Jeffco’s campaign co-chair Jonna Levine, whose Election Day began with waving signs in support of the $99 million bond issue and $39 million operating tax to 7 a.m. commuters at Kipling and Alameda, said she started feeling confident when she saw all the senior citizens waving and honking.
“That made us feel optimistic,” she said.
An exuberant Superintendent Cindy Stevenson, tears streaming down her face, said “It’s really good and it’s really BIG.”
Moments before, Stevenson had announced her intention to try her best not to cry, whatever the result. “We’re just holding our breath,” she said.
As latecomers arrived at the crowded election watch party, they were greeted with the news: “We’ve won!”
Colorado voters have a long history of passing most school tax proposals but the record has been mixed in recent years because of the dismal economy. Half of the state’s school measures failed in 2008, as the Great Recession began, including Jeffco’s requests for a $350 million bond issue and a $34 million operating increase.
In 2011, more than 30 school districts sought tax hikes but voters approved only $73 million of the more than $560 million proposed – or just 13 percent of the dollars sought.
But the economy has been tough on districts too, with reduced or flat state funding.
This year’s proposals for operating increases total about $150.7 million. Most of those districts say they need to increase operating revenues to at least partly offset the state budget cuts of recent years.
The total of the 2012 proposed bond issues is about $877.5 million, including nearly $100 million in requests from the districts that need to raise matching money to win state Building Excellent School Today grants.
Backers of district ballot measures hoped voters, buoyed by the slowly recovering economy, would be more likely to say yes. And, preliminary returns show, most of them did.
Jeffco’s ballot battle
Supporters of Jeffco’s ballot measures argued that question 3A, the $39 million increase in operating taxes, would help forestall $45 million in expected budget cuts.
They said the added revenue would maintain class sizes, protect elementary music programs and library staffing, and buy back two teacher furlough days due to shorten the 2013-14 school year.
Question 3B, the bond issue, will provide 141 of the district’s 154 schools with updated fire alarms, roof repairs, sidewalk repairs, electrical upgrades and other capital improvements.
Together, both issues will raise taxes on a $250,000 home by an estimated $36.70 per year – roughly a dime a day, an amount community leaders deemed was fair, even though it doesn’t quite cover the estimated budget shortfall.
But opponents – which included one school board member, Laura Boggs – countered the school district wasn’t entirely transparent about either its funding options or where the increased tax money would go.
They said the district would not have to mandate employee furlough days or threaten increased class sizes if it were willing to ask employees to fund a greater share of their pension payments to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA.
“They insist they have no choice, but they do,” said Sheila Atwell, executive director of Jeffco Students First, an education reform non-profit, and Jeffco Students First Action, the group’s political advocacy arm. Atwell, a former financial planner from Evergreen, has taken the lead in opposing the ballot items.
“Looking at a billion dollar budget, there are other places to cut rather than threatening parents with bigger class sizes … The real cost drivers are things like the compensation package, which includes retirement and the underfunded nature of PERA.”
Supporters of the ballot measures had raised $149,504 as of the most recent campaign filing deadline on Nov. 2. Opponents reported raising $5,145.
Shortly after 8 p.m. Tuesday, Atwell was ready to accept defeat and move on. There was no formal gathering of the issue’s opponents, and Atwell said most were at various candidate parties.
“We were outspent, and that made it tough,” she said, adding that she wasn’t too surprised by the outcome. “It’s hard for folks who challenge the status quo. But we did the best we could with the resources we had. We will keeping challenging the status quo, speaking up for students instead of employees. We will continue to monitor how those additional funds are spent.”
Other districts on the ballot:
Cherry Creek School District
Voters in the southeast suburban district faced two questions – a $25 million operating tax increase, or question 3A, and a $125 million bond issue, or question 3B.
District officials said the operating increase will be used to maintain class sizes, support curriculum and instruction, and enhance use of technology. Bond issue proceeds are to be used for STEM classrooms, renovations and additions around the districts, new technology, and safety and security.
It’s estimated the two proposals would cost the owner of an “average” home in the district an additional $8 a month in property taxes.
Early returns showed both ballot measures passing but district spokeswoman Tustin Amole was cautious.
“We think we’re okay, but we don’t know for sure,” she said. “I do know all precincts are partially counted. We are optimistic but won’t call it until the county does. But we like what we see so far.”
9News declared the ballot measures victorious in this story.
Aurora Public Schools
The district proposed measure 3C, a $15 million operating tax increase that Aurora officials say will be used to partly offset more than $70 million in state budget cuts over the last three years.
The money will be used for reading, writing, math, science and early childhood programs; classroom materials and technology; and maintaining staff.
District leaders estimate approval of the ballot measure would cost district homeowners an additional $5.71 a month or $68.52 per year for every $100,000 of home value.
The measure was headed for approval at midnight, after maintaining a comfortable lead throughout the evening.
St. Vrain Valley School District
The district sought a $14.8 million operating tax increase to maintain staff compensation and to support technology and early childhood programs. The school board had considered a $16.8 million increase but decided to ask for a lower amount in light of economic conditions.
It’s estimated passage of measure 3A would increase taxes $4.16 a month per $100,000 of actual home value.
The ballot question maintained a strong lead throughout the evening and appeared to be headed to victory. Wednesday, the Longmont Times-Call declared a win for the ballot measure in this story.
Greeley-Evans School District
Voters were asked to vote on an $8.2 million bond issue to provide 28 percent of the cost of replacing 50-year-old John Evans School. The state’s Building Excellent Schools Today program would provide the rest of the funds for the project. Greeley is an alternate for BEST funding, so a finalist would have to lose its bond election to free up money for the district, which would have to pass its bond to remain eligible.
Returns showed the district winning its request for more bond dollars, with 59 percent of voters reporting in favor and 41 percent against. District leaders celebrated victory, thanking voters in this Greeley Tribune story.
Sheridan School District
The district was making its second try in two years for a bond issue to match a state BEST grant. This year, Sheridan proposed a $6.5 million bond to earn a state grant of $23 million. This year’s plan would replace an early childhood center, renovate a middle school and demolish an older elementary school building.With early returns showing the measure heading for victory, Superintendent Michael Clough was in an upbeat mood.
“Sheridan has not built a school since 1972. So this is an exciting day for the Sheridan community,” he said. “Building a 3-5 connected to a 6-8 with common areas in the middle … also additional preschool classrooms … we have not had nearly enough spaces or slots for our preschool population. This will be huge educationally for us in so many ways.
Sheridan officials declared victory for the ballot measure before 9:30 p.m. See the press release.
The district, which serves county areas outside the city of Pueblo, sought a $59.9 million bond for safety and security projects, replacement of modular units and other work.
District 70 voters rejected a $35 million bond and a $3.4 million operating increase last year, prompting leaders to redraft their bond proposal for this year.
Initial results showed a close margin of approval for the bond issue, with 53 percent of voters in favor and 47 percent against. As midnight neared, that had widened to a 55 percent lead and the Pueblo Chieftain Wednesday reported successful passage of the measure in this story.
More information: District summary of proposal.
A .35 percent city sales-tax increase will provide an estimated $1.75 million for the school district.
The Aspen Times declared victory for the measure before midnight, according to this story.