School Finance

Voters also skeptical of many district tax measures

Voters around the state rejected just over half of the local district tax proposals on Tuesday’s ballots at the same time most voters said no to Amendment 66.

Some 13 bond issues and tax overrides were defeated in 12 districts, according to Department of State vote totals Wednesday. (Full counts haven’t been completed in some counties and districts.)

In five districts voters did approve bonds or tax overrides worth nearly $100 million. And residents of another six districts approved bond issues totaling about $30 million, money that will be used to match grants from the state’s Building Excellent Schools Today construction program. No proposed BEST match was defeated.

Voters split on two early childhood-related tax measures in Summit County. Citizens countywide strongly supported extension of a property tax that supports ECE programs. But Breckenridge voters defeated a proposed property tax hike to support preschool scholarships.

District projects earning voter approval included Littleton’s $80 million bond issue (an extension of an existing tax rather than a new levy) and Fort Morgan’s $7.2 million bond. Voters in Cheyenne County, Lake County and the Walsh district approved modest overrides.

The most significant losses were a $44 million bond in Commerce City, a $5.2 million override in Westminster, a $5.4 million bond and $1.3 million override in Canon City and a $4.5 million override in Lewis-Palmer. Other districts that lost either bonds or overrides included Bennett, Fremont Re-3, Elizabeth, East Grand, Kit Carson, Estes Park, Meeker and Wiley.

The districts whose voters approved BEST bonds were Creede, Haxtun, Kim, Limon, Moffat 2 and South Conejos. (Fort Morgan was a BEST alternative, and voters there approved an additional $11 million bond as a match on the chance that some BEST finalists didn’t pass their bonds.)

The BEST program is expected to get a boost from passage of Proposition AA, the wholesale and retail marijuana taxes that passed by a 65-35 margin statewide. The measure imposes a 15 percent state excise tax on the average wholesale price of retail marijuana, with the first $40 million of that revenue going to the BEST program. But revenue is expected to be less than $40 million in the first two years of the tax.

This year’s district tax elections were in sharp contrast to the volume and voter acceptance of proposals in 2012, when voters in 29 school districts approved 34 bond issues and operating revenue increases – plus one sales tax hike – worth just over $1 billion. Districts had 38 proposals worth about $1.03 billion on the ballot.

In 2011, with the economy still coming out of recession, voters approved only 11 of the 43 bond issues and mill levy overrides proposed by 36 districts.

Colorado voters historically have been receptive to local district tax increases, a fact cited frequently by A66 supporters as an indication that their proposal might have a chance. But, at least this year, the history of local support for taxes didn’t translate to a statewide initiative.


More than 1,000 Memphis school employees will get raise to $15 per hour

PHOTO: Katie Kull

About 1,200 Memphis school employees will see their wages increase to $15 per hour under a budget plan announced Tuesday evening.

The raises would would cost about $2.4 million, according to Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance.

The plan for Shelby County Schools, the city’s fifth largest employer, comes as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Memphis in 1968 to promote living wages.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson read from King’s speech to sanitation workers 50 years and two days ago as they were on strike for fair wages:

“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life or our nation. They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation … And it is criminal to have people working on a full time basis and a full time job getting part time income.”

Hopson also cited a “striking” report that showed an increase in the percent of impoverished children in Shelby County. That report from the University of Memphis was commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum to analyze poverty trends since King’s death.

“We think it’s very important because so many of our employees are actually parents of students in our district,” Hopson said.

The superintendent of Tennessee’s largest district frequently cites what he calls “suffocating poverty” for many of the students in Memphis public schools as a barrier to academic success.

Most of the employees currently making below $15 per hour are warehouse workers, teaching assistants, office assistants, and cafeteria workers, said Johnson.

The threshold of $15 per hour is what many advocates have pushed to increase the federal minimum wage. The living wage in Memphis, or amount that would enable families of one adult and one child to support themselves, is $21.90, according to a “living wage calculator” produced by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Board members applauded the move Tuesday but urged Hopson to make sure those the district contracts out services to also pay their workers that same minimum wage.

“This is a bold step for us to move forward as a district,” said board chairwoman Shante Avant.

after parkland

Tennessee governor proposes $30 million for student safety plan

Gov. Bill Haslam is proposing spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, both in schools and on school buses.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday proposed spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, joining the growing list of governors pushing similar actions after last month’s shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

But unlike other states focusing exclusively on safety inside of schools, Haslam wants some money to keep students safe on school buses too — a nod to several fatal accidents in recent years, including a 2016 crash that killed six elementary school students in Chattanooga.

“Our children deserve to learn in a safe and secure environment,” Haslam said in presenting his safety proposal in an amendment to his proposed budget.

The Republican governor only had about $84 million in mostly one-time funding to work with for extra needs this spring, and school safety received top priority. Haslam proposed $27 million for safety in schools and $3 million to help districts purchase new buses equipped with seat belts.

But exactly how the school safety money will be spent depends on recommendations from Haslam’s task force on the issue, which is expected to wind up its work on Thursday after three weeks of meetings. Possibilities include more law enforcement officers and mental health services in schools, as well as extra technology to secure school campuses better.

“We don’t have an exact description of how those dollars are going to be used. We just know it’s going to be a priority,” Haslam told reporters.

The governor acknowledged that $30 million is a modest investment given the scope of the need, and said he is open to a special legislative session on school safety. “I think it’s a critical enough issue,” he said, adding that he did not expect that to happen. (State lawmakers cannot begin campaigning for re-election this fall until completing their legislative work.)

Education spending already is increased in Haslam’s $37.5 billion spending plan unveiled in January, allocating an extra $212 million for K-12 schools and including $55 million for teacher pay raises. But Haslam promised to revisit the numbers — and specifically the issue of school safety — after a shooter killed 14 students and three faculty members on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, triggering protests from students across America and calls for heightened security and stricter gun laws.

Haslam had been expected to roll out a school safety plan this spring, but his inclusion of bus safety was a surprise to many. Following fatal crashes in Hamilton and Knox counties in recent years, proposals to retrofit school buses with seat belts have repeatedly collapsed in the legislature under the weight the financial cost.

The new $3 million investment would help districts begin buying new buses with seat belts but would not address existing fleets.

“Is it the final solution on school bus seat belts? No, but it does [make a start],” Haslam said.

The governor presented his school spending plan on the same day that the House Civil Justice Committee advanced a controversial bill that would give districts the option of arming some trained teachers with handguns. The bill, which Haslam opposes, has amassed at least 45 co-sponsors in the House and now goes to the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.

“I just don’t think most teachers want to be armed,” Haslam told reporters, “and I don’t think most school boards are going to authorize them to be armed, and I don’t think most people are going to want to go through the training.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.