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Denver board splits 5-2 on tax proposals

Eleventh-hour negotiations failed to unite Denver school board members around a half-billion-dollar tax question that will be on the November ballot.

Yet five of seven board members who voted in favor Thursday of placing the $49 million operating tax increase for educational programs and $466 million bond issue for buildings and technology on the ballot say they’ll work hard to win over voters.

The very first campaign yard signs reading “Yes on 3A and 3B” – the official ballot positions for the questions – surfaced outside school district headquarters immediately after the 5-2 vote.

Board member Jeanne Kaplan said that earlier in the week she would not have voted in favor of putting the tax questions on the ballot. But she changed her mind after winning some key concessions during a flurry of conversations over the past few days. She described this as one of the hardest decisions she’s made in her life.

“I have issues,” Kaplan said. “I have huge issues. I’m out of my comfort zone … I do believe the bond as it’s being presented is in a much better place. I can feel better saying “yes” and asking the city of Denver to support it.”

Kaplan flips to support the tax measures

In the end, the board OK’d adding $18.7 million to the bond amount to enclose open classrooms at Bromwell, Eagleton, Kaiser, Samuels, Southmoor, Swansea and Valdez elementaries. Open classrooms are a vestige of the 1970s that educators today say negatively impact learning.

The additional money in the bond will also allow the district to own outright the building that houses Florence Crittenton, a school for pregnant teens.

Meanwhile, the board subtracted $9.5 million from the recommendations of a citizens advisory committee, including $4.3 million for fire systems, $2 million to improve water quality and $500,00 for air cooling solutions.

All told, the board agreed to bump up the bond amount by $9.2 million – from $457 million to $466 million. Other concessions offered in attempts to bring all seven members together included the district’s agreement to present neighborhood or district-run school plans, as well as charters, in growing areas.

By casting an affirmative vote, Kaplan parted ways with board members Arturo Jimenez and Andrea Merida, with whom she shares a disdain for the proliferation of charter schools at the perceived expense of viable neighborhood schools.

While Kaplan’s vote was a victory for the board majority, board president Mary Seawell said afterward she was “disappointed” by the lack of unity. But she said the five board members who supported the bond issue and operating tax increase, also known as a mill levy increase, would now move forward.

“We’re going to get it passed and it’s going to be great,” Seawell said.

The lead up to Thursday’s vote was tension-filled and divisive. Board members Happy Haynes, Seawell and Kaplan all disclosed connections to Stapleton or other entities that DPS legal counsel John Kechriotis determined did not constitute conflicts of interest after Merida raised concerns at an earlier work session. As part of the bond measure, a $38.5 million high school would be built to serve the growing Stapleton area.

Haynes, for instance, said she serves on the board of the Stapleton Development Corp.

“The board has no direct activities with the school district,” Haynes said. “As a member of the board, I receive no compensation and would not receive a benefit other than (the same benefit) all our citizens would from the results of a bond and mill levy election if it were to pass.”

Kaplan expressed a similar sentiment in describing her husband Steve Kaplan’s work as counsel to Stapleton developer Forest City. Seawell’s husband also works for Forest City. Both Kaplan and Seawell have recused themselves from some prior votes involving Stapleton.

Community speaks out on ballot issues

Nearly 30 people spoke during the board’s public comment session, most expressing support for the tax questions. Stand for Children presented a petition signed by 923 Denverites supporting them.

Southwest Denver resident Martha Patricia Ramirez, of Stand for Children, addressed the board in Spanish with the help of an English translator. She talked about how hard life had been in her native Mexico and how much she valued education for her kids.

“I was able to finish 10th grade, my husband was able to get to ninth grade,” Ramirez said. “My time in school was short. I had to leave school, had to help my family. Education is so important to me and so important for my kids. I want them to have long-term vision. I want them to have a better life. I want them to have better opportunities than I had.”

Mike Yankovich, who served on the citizens advisory committee that studied district needs for six months before providing recommendations to the board, said his eyes were opened on tours of schools.

“The basic services we all take for granted – many don’t exist within our schools,” Yankovich said. “I saw places where the drinking water, while safe, had rust in it.”

Bromwell Elementary student Sebastian Orozco showed up in an automated wheelchair to tell the board he would like to see a bigger bathroom and lunchroom and more swings at his school, which offers a special program for students with disabilities. He said he once fell when he encountered a big crack in the play area outside.

Robert Giron, who lives in southwest Denver and served on the advisory committee, said he would not support the district’s quest for more money because of the persistent achievement gap between white students and students of color. He said none of the plans outlined in the tax proposals would provide a quick enough fix.

“I pray each of the school board members use a moral and social compass and finally do what’s right for all Denver public school children,” Giron said.

Voting against the tax issues

Bob Deibel, a businessman who co-chaired the citizens advisory committee, said the passage of the tax questions would serve to make Denver even more attractive to business.

“The public prefers most of our money going into current schools.”
— Arturo Jimenez, DPS board“Education is a fundamental element of any strong economic development effort,” he said.

He said it was difficult for the committee to whittle down the list of needs. DPS officials estimate the district has $2 billion in unmet facilities needs. At the same time, the district has grown by 10,000 students in five years and state funding has been cut.

“Not all interests may be able to be satisfied right now but that is not a reason not to act,” Deibel said. “It’s not a reason to miss the opportunity we have in front of us.“

Jimenez said he could support the operating increase but not the bond. He said he understood every line item in the 2008 bond that targeted aging infrastructure, such as school boilers and roofs.

But of the 2012 proposal, “I find myself not understanding the critical need in terms of the contents of the bond proposal,” Jimenez said. “I do believe we need to raise taxes for education, but I always give pause when it’s on the backs of the lowest income people in the form of a flat tax.”

Jimenez also lamented the emphasis on new school buildings. And he said $200 million would go to “elite charter schools.”

(Editor’s note – Jimenez’s $200 million figure is disputed by other DPS leaders, as noted in the comment section of this story, and Jimenez did not respond to a request from EdNews for clarification. According to district officials, a total of $43.6 million of the total bond amount would be used to expand and renovate five district-owned buildings that would house charter schools.)

“I have not been convinced of the clear need or capacity for all of these projects,” Jimenez said. “The public prefers most of our money going into current schools.”

Merida expressed similar concerns. She said she offered a last-minute solution to her colleagues that would have caused her to support the bond issue: Build a new school in Stapleton, but then put a sizable chunk of the rest of the bond money in a restricted account that the residents of southwest Denver could decide how to spend on their schools. She said she was “rebuffed.”

Spending plan for ballot proposals

If the ballot measures are approved, taxpayers would pay about $140 annually, or $12 per month, in additional property taxes for the owner of a Denver home valued at $225,000.

The $49 million operating increase would provide:

  • $11 million for enrichment programs that would increase program offerings in arts, music and physical education;
  • $13 million to increase full-day preschool and kindergarten programs to serve Denver children who are unable to enroll due to a lack of state funding;
  • $17 million to expand instructional support such as tutoring, small-group instruction, counseling, and community and parent engagement; and
  • $8 million to invest in 21st century classroom technology and rigorous, up-to-date curricular materials.

The $466 million general-obligation bond proposal would cover:

  • $230 million for repairs and renovations to address health and safety issues in aging school buildings and to improve the sustainability and energy efficiency of all schools;
  • $78 million to renovate and expand existing schools to address overcrowded classrooms across the city and accommodate the expansion of full-day preschool and kindergarten programs. This investment would add thousands of seats of capacity across the city, including 1,000 elementary seats in southwest Denver alone and more than 1,000 seats of capacity in both the northeast region and southeast regions of the city;
  • $119 million for construction of new facilities to address areas of town with the greatest population growth; and
  • $39 million for enhancing technology and infrastructure to provide our children with access to 21st century classrooms.

For more information about the specifics of the proposal, visit the this district webpage. Meanwhile, get more information on the campaign to pass the measures at

In other business, the board voted unanimously to support locating the Girls Athletic Leadership School or GALS at the former Del Pueblo Elementary building. GALS, a charter school, was originally slated to be placed at Manual High School, which has extra space. But Manual students and staff fought the proposal, arguing it would be better for both schools’ growth and future success to have their own buildings.

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