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Big win for 27J, tough loss for Douglas County in school tax measure votes

An orange and white banner supporting a school district bond issue is attached to the front of a restaurant.

Voters rejected seven Colorado school district tax measures Tuesday, including a bond issue in Kiowa, according to unofficial results.

Ann Schimke / Chalkbeat

Voters approved about two-thirds of 22 school district tax measures around Colorado Tuesday, partial election results show, with a particularly big win in the Brighton-based 27J district where seven previous mill levy overrides failed. In part, the district’s successful override measure will fund teacher pay raises — possibly up to 7.5%.

“I’m so excited for our 2,000-plus employees,” said Superintendent Chris Fiedler on Tuesday night as he celebrated with supporters at a Brighton brewery. “This will be a vote of confidence for them.” 

Meanwhile, in the 64,000-student Douglas County district, where a conservative board majority pushed out the superintendent last February leading to months of turmoil, voters likely rejected two tax measures. One, 5A, a mill levy override that would fund 9% teacher raises, was down by 1.3 percentage points Wednesday afternoon with some votes uncounted. The other, 5B, a $450 million bond issue that was losing by a much larger margin, would have paid for new schools and building upgrades.

Sarah Mesmer, interim president of the district’s teachers union, called the losses disappointing, saying they will hurt the district’s ability to attract and retain teachers. 

“I know that there are teachers who are going to leave because their compensation in neighboring districts is better,” she said. “We lose teachers to Littleton. We lose teachers to Cherry Creek, and that’s unfortunate.”

Conservative opponents of the tax measures circulated false claims that new money would support “woke” instruction, while some observers said the divisiveness on the school board and the recent churn in leadership likely hurt voter support for the measures. 

“A community needs to feel that there is a plan, that there is stability, that this has been well thought out,” said Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project. 

In Douglas County, “I think a lot of that got disrupted,” she said, noting the district has had three superintendents in three years. 

Despite the double defeat in Douglas County, it was a good year for school district ballot measures generally, according to unofficial results tallied by the Colorado School Finance Project. Fifteen measures were passing as of midday Wednesday, including in Boulder Valley, Greeley-Evans, Mapleton, and Delta County in western Colorado, though some votes were still being counted. 

Most of the ballot measures will pay for capital projects such as school construction or building upgrades. A handful, including in District 27J and Mapleton, will fund recurring expenses such as pay raises for staff.

In 27J, the mill levy override 5B passed soundly, representing the first time in 22 years that district voters approved such a measure. (Last year, the district narrowly passed a bond issue.)

In addition to pay raises, the mill levy override will pay for armed security officers at district elementary schools and for additional staff and resources to expand career and technical education programs at district high schools.  

Fiedler said the district decided to add the provision for new security staff after a gunman killed 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, last spring. 

“That definitely brought some voters to a yes who maybe hadn’t been there before,” he said.  

In the Windsor-based Weld RE-4 district, its bond measure 4B and mill levy override 4C appeared to be passing comfortably midafternoon Wednesday with about 55% of the vote, but district officials were reluctant to declare victory since some votes were still being counted in Weld County. 

There’s “no definitive call,” said a district spokeswoman.

Rainey said the success rate of school ballot measures this year was pretty consistent with prior years, though the number of school districts with ballot measures was lower than usual. This year, there were 22 measures, compared with 30 last year and 28 the year before

She said the pandemic limited the ways school districts could engage their communities to gather input as they consider such measures.

“I would anticipate in the next year or two you’re going to start seeing that pent-up demand for districts wanting to go [for a ballot issue],” she said.  

Besides Douglas County, five other districts faced tax measure defeats Tuesday, including neighboring Lewis-Palmer, and four rural districts: Bennett, Ellicott, Kiowa, and Platte Canyon. 

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at aschimke@chalkbeat.org.

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