Bloodbath for district tax plans

Updated Nov. 2. – Voters rejected more than three-quarters of the tax increases proposed by Colorado school districts, leaving boards and administrators to shelve construction plans and eat budget cuts they had hoped to cover.

LogoOf the 43 bond issues and mill levy overrides proposed by 36 districts, only 11 were approved by voters. (Overrides are proposals to increase property tax rates to raise money for operating expenses.)

Six of the measures approved were to raise local matching funds for state dollars from the Building Excellent Schools Today program. Six other BEST matching proposals were defeated by voters.

Only three middle-sized districts saw proposals approved – Cheyenne Mountain, Englewood and Roaring Fork.

The largest measures approved were Englewood’s $50 million bond issue and Roaring Fork’s $4.2 million override.

The list of losers among larger districts was longer: Brighton, Douglas County (two measures), Eagle County, Falcon (two measures), Mesa 51, Pueblo County (two measures), Sheridan and Thompson.

Englewood’s bond and an $1.5 million override were on the edge until Wednesday evening, when the Arapahoe County clerk’s website, with all votes finally counted, reported that the bond passed 52 percent to 48 percent and the override squeaked by 51.15 percent yes to 49.85 percent no. Total votes cast were about 4,700.

Even though Englewood was the fifth and last alternate on the BEST priority list, it looks like it will win its match. Two finalists eligible for BEST grants lost their local match bids, leaving nearly $24 million of state money on the table. And the top four alternates also failed to pass their matches. The State Capital Construction Assistance Board meets Thursday to reallocate the 2011-12 grants.

Here are the winners:

  • Big Sandy/Simla – $2.9 million bond for BEST match
  • Byers – $330,000 override
  • Cheyenne Mountain – $1.7 million override
  • Ellicott – $2.4 million BEST match
  • Englewood – $50 million bond ($43 million for construction and $8 million for a BEST match), $1.5 million override
  • Idalia – $3.9 million BEST match
  • Prairie/New Raymer – $3.4 million BEST match
  • Roaring Fork – $4.2 million override
  • Sanford – $2.1 million BEST match
  • Sierra Grande (Costilla County) – $335,000 override

“I don’t have any great insights … except this is not the time because of the economy,” said Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards. “I know some of those folks [district leaders] thought they could pull it off, but a number of them were very worried.

“It’s a sign of the times.”

Dougco’s $200 million bond issue was the largest proposed in the state this year. Dougco, Englewood, Falcon and Pueblo County were the only districts that proposed both bond issues and overrides for operating expenses.

The following chart shows results for major proposals. Measures that passed are in darker type. Full results available here, compiled by the Colorado School Finance Project. Article continues after chart.

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Bond and override background

More than half a billion dollars in property tax revenue was sought in the election, primarily to build or renovate buildings and to bolster operating budgets that have been squeezed by losses in state aid.

The bulk of the revenue, about $480 million, was for bond issues.

About a dozen districts, many of them small, sought a total of more than $50 million in bond funds to match potential grants from the state’s Building Excellent Schools Today program. Five of those districts, including Englewood and Sheridan in the metro area, are on the BEST waiting list. Even if those voters approve the bonds, the districts won’t receive state money unless some districts higher up the priority list lose their elections.

The more than $560 million proposed by local districts this year is less than the total that was on ballots in 2010, when 31 districts sought $738 million in bond issues and operating revenue increases.

Despite concerns that economic woes would dampen voter interest in raising taxes, districts did pretty well last fall. Voters approved $595.8 million in bonds and operating increases and rejected only $142.5 million worth.

Major proposals at a glance

School under construction
Here are snapshots of tax proposals in larger districts, listed in order of enrollment size.

Douglas County – $200 million bond issue for facilities, technology and other spending and $20 million of increased spending authority for operations, including a pay-for-performance program.

Mesa 51 – $12.5 million of increased taxing authority for eight years to restore teaching positions, add technology and stabilize revenues.

Thompson – $12.8 million, 12-year override to fund class size, new programs and technology.

Brighton – $4.8 million override to maintain class sizes, buy instructional materials and reduce fees. (A 2010 override was defeated.)

Falcon –$85 million bond issue for construction and a $5 million override. (Voters rejected a bond issue last year.)

Pueblo County –$35 million bond issue for facilities and a $3.4 million override to reduce class sizes, restore teaching jobs and expand vocational programs.

Eagle County – $6 million override to maintain class sizes, reduce cutbacks in extracurricular activities and replace buses and computers.

Smaller districts seeking large bond issues include Englewood ($50 million) and Archuleta County/Pagosa Springs ($49 million).

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede