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Denver board divided on tax proposals

Denver Public Schools board members remain deeply divided over their support for a pair of proposed tax increases they’re considering for the November ballot.

A citizens’ committee and district leaders are recommending the board ask voters to approve a $457 million bond issue and a $49 million increase in operating dollars.

Board members are expected to vote in late August whether to put those questions before voters. But in a work session Monday, some board members were openly critical of the proposed increases.

Board member Andrea Merida described the increase for operating dollars as “throwing money at this problem,” “a flat tax” and “funding to support increased testing regimes.”

The latter concern refers to a portion of the increase, or $4 million, which would be used to help align curriculum materials with the academic standards adopted in 2010 by the State Board of Education.

Two other board members, Jeanne Kaplan and Arturo Jimenez, raised questions about how much of the proposed bond issue would go to buildings to be used by charter schools.

“That’s the elephant in the room nobody wants to talk about,” Jimenez said after the meeting. “An unprecedented amount of money would go to elite charter schools.”

Kaplan estimated at least six new schools or major school renovations would serve charters, and she noted, “That’s not where I want my tax money to go.”

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said only one of six proposed new facilities, a 6-12 campus at Colorado Heights University, is expected to house a charter school. That’s because the school board voted last year to assign a Denver School of Science and Technology to that location.

“In no other case is there any agreement or promise,” he said after the meeting. “In every case, we are building schools because the community has a very, very strong need for additional capacity to deal with overcrowding and a very high rate of population growth.”

To state otherwise, Boasberg said, “is to raise false and needlessly divisive claims.”

Of the renovation projects included in the bond issue, four involve charters, he said Tuesday, citing DSST at the former Byers middle school and at the Cole/Mitchell campus, University Prep charter at the former Crofton school and the Denver Language School charter at the former Whiteman building. Those placement decisions were previously approved by the school board.

Boasberg said all schools, whether traditional or charter, pay the same facility fees.

Beginning in February, a citizens’ committee met over four months before coming up with the set of recommendations for the bond issue and the operating tax increase, also referred to as a mill levy. Committee members presented their proposals to board members in June.

Three board members – Nate Easley, Happy Haynes and Anne Rowe – seemed ready to use those recommendations as a starting point, at least, for the final product that might wind up before voters.

Easley said he would rather add projects to the list than take them off.

“I would rather have an ‘and’ conversation and not an ‘or’ conversation,” he said. “Let’s look at what’s missing and what we can do as elected officials to make sure this gets passed.”

All six board members – board president Mary Seawell was out of town – agreed with Kaplan’s suggestion to take another look at expanding the bond issue to include all eight schools with open classrooms.

School staffs working in open classrooms, the remains of a bygone education trend, say they’re noisy and distracting for students. Two of the eight schools were placed on the bond list for classroom enclosure but board members said Monday they’ll consider adding the other six.

Board members said they also want to look at recommended dollars allocated for facilities for projected growth versus the more immediate needs of existing buildings, among other areas.

“Maybe one day we won’t be sitting here having this kind of debate because our state will have figured out how to fund education the right way,” Haynes said. “Until that time, we’ve got tough decisions to make.”

Community meetings on the tax proposals are planned the week of Aug. 13. At least one more board meeting also is expected before members vote, likely Aug. 23 or Aug. 29.

Under a tentative agreement between the school district and the teachers’ union, Denver teachers would receive their first cost-of-living raise in three years if voters agree to the increase for operating dollars.

Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said Monday that teachers will vote on ratifying that agreement when they return to school in late August. If they do so, he said, union members will then decide whether to support the tax proposals and to what degree.

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