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Questions raised at DPS tax meeting

New schools vs. old schools.

Stapleton vs. southwest Denver.

A community meeting in southwest Denver Thursday evening centered around how a successful $457 million bond issue and $49 million operating increase would be spent.

Several in the crowd of 40 – including school board members Andrea Merida and Jeannie Kaplan – said the current proposal pumps money into growth areas such as Stapleton at the expense of older schools in the city’s southwest corridor, which they say would remain crowded and in disrepair.

A few Stapleton parents showed up too, to explain the need for new school facilities in their rapidly growing neighborhood in northeast Denver. Board President Mary Seawell also attended the meeting at Kepner Middle School, as did several high-level district staff to collect comments and suggestions from the audience.

The goal of a Thursday’s forum, and two others across Denver earlier this week, is to get buy-in from community members at large. Three DPS board members – Merida, Kaplan and Arturo Jimenez – also are on the fence or have expressed opposition to the proposals.

“We’re hoping to get to a place where everybody feels OK about it,” Kaplan said. “I hope we do come to a resolution. But it needs to be equitable.”

The board is expected to vote next week on whether to place the tax proposals on the November ballot.

Key components of tax proposals

A citizens advisory committee made these recommendations for a general obligation bond:

  • $222 million to address key facility maintenance needs
  • $77 million to renovate and expand existing facilities
  • $119 million to build new facilities
  • $40 million to expand technology for educational and operational use

Committee members also recommended these elements for an operating increase, also known as a mill levy increase:

  • $15 million for instructional support
  • $11 million for enrichment programs
  • $13 million for early childhood education
  • $4 million for educational technology
  • $4 million for curricular materials
  • $2 million for student and community supports

Of those dollars, $76 million would be allocated to southwest Denver. More than half of that money would pay for facility improvements and additions, including five “cottages” or permanent versions of mobile classrooms most likely for early childhood programs, as well as a 350-seat early childhood center and a Denver School of Science and Technology at the former Loretto Heights campus.

To Merida, who represents the area, that did not sound like equity. She criticized district staff for not including the broader southwest Denver community in its discussions regarding the tax proposals.

“What I find very disturbing is the fact that your department took the recommendations of internal people, recommendation of contract architects,” she said. “At no time did anyone from the district come down to talk to us in southwest Denver.”

A contingent from Padres y Jovenes Unidos attended Thursday’s forum to ask whether expanded learning opportunities would be funded.
A contingent from Padres y Jovenes Unidos attended Thursday’s forum to ask whether expanded learning opportunities would be funded.

“We have the second highest student population in the district – and we get less than 20 percent of half a billion dollars,” she said. “I’ll leave that with you.”

Meanwhile, a small contingent from Bromwell Elementary in the Cherry Creek area, which Kaplan represents, showed up to emphasize the acute facility needs at their school. One student described how she was almost crushed in fourth grade by a temporary wall when it collapsed. The school is one of 11 in the district that have “open classrooms,” a learning fad from the 1970s.

One parent said Bromwell has had no significant renovations since 1976. Fourth-grade teacher Steve Replogle said it’s challenging to teach at Bromwell.

“The joy of learning is sometimes really noisy,” he said. “I constantly have to tell my students to be very quiet so we don’t disturb other students next door who might be taking a test.“

Open classrooms become hot button

Open classrooms have become a hot topic for the board, especially for Kaplan, who has been a vocal advocate of doing away with the schools without walls.

Wednesday, during a board work session attended by Kaplan, Seawell, Happy Haynes and Anne Rowe, they discussed the possibility of expanding the bond request by $8 or $9 million so that at least six of the 11 open classroom schools, including Bromwell and Valdez Elementary, could be fixed. In the current proposal, only two – Cheltenham Elementary and Centennial ECE-8 – would get walls.

Parent Maggie Gomer said it seems that southwest Denver always gets too little, too late.

“I feel Bromwell’s pain,” she said. “At the last bond issue, we finally got new bathrooms at Kennedy. There was a big celebration for kids because they were able to go to a bathroom that wasn’t disgusting. It took us 30 years to replace the bathrooms. We’ve got a long way to go.”

A few other people in the audience said that while they had concerns, they wanted to back the tax increases because of their overarching support for public education.

Robert Giron, who served on the citizens advisory committee and has kids at Lincoln High School, complained that the current proposal does nothing to alleviate overcrowding. He said he does not support the proposal as it stands.

“I didn’t see the money was going to alleviate overcrowding at Lincoln,” he said. “The president came to Lincoln and couldn’t drink water out of the water fountain. That’s how bad the water is.”

Giron and others indicated they would support the bond issue if it focused on correcting issues that exist now in the schools vs. building new schools to accommodate growth projections.

“If we do decide to pass this bond and mill levy, we should use all the money on the overcrowding and security problems we have now before we build one more school,” Giron said to applause.

Details of Denver Public Schools’ tax proposals

  • Cost of tax proposals for average Denver homeowner with home valued at $225,000 – $143 annually or about $90 for operating tax and $54 for bond issue. Questions will be separate.
  • See the one-page summary on how the tax increases would benefit schools by board member district or geographic area

Operating increase

Bond issue

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