Referendum on taxes

Districts roll the dice on $1.5 billion in tax increase measures

This story was updated on Oct. 15 to reflect final totals after the last deadline for putting measures on the ballot had passed. 

Will 2014 be the year that voters in Colorado school districts loosen up their wallets and approve well more than $1 billion in local tax increases for school construction and operations?

A year ago, voters were almost as skeptical of local proposals as they were of Amendment 66, the $1 billion K-12 statewide income tax hike that was defeated overwhelmingly. Hoping that voters are in a different mood this year, some two dozen Colorado school districts are seeking some $1.5 billion in property tax increases for construction projects and operating funds.

“On the bond side, it’s going to be the largest group of bonds that anybody’s ever seen,” said Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project, which compiled the detailed list displayed at the bottom of this article.

This year’s ballot measures are interesting for several important reasons, including:

A big year – The total $1.4 billion request exceeds the nearly $1.2 billion districts proposed in 2012, although there were 38 measures on the ballot that year, compared to about 30 this year.

Boulder has biggest ask – The Boulder Valley School District is asking for a $576.4 million bond issue this year, exceeding the high set previously by the $515 million combined bond and override requested – and won – by Denver Public Schools in 2012.

Bond & Mill
  • Bond measures are voter-approved increases in property taxes for facilities needs. Districts sell bonds to raise the cash to pay for construction, then use the additional tax revenues to pay the bonds off.
  • Overrides are voter-approved hikes in a district’s general property tax rate that a district generally uses for operating expenses or special needs like technology purchases.

Five Adams districts asking – Most of the money – about $1.1 billion – is being requested from voters in just two counties, Adams and Boulder. Five districts in western Adams all are on the Nov. 4 ballot, an apparently unprecedented event.

Financial pressures – Despite a modest bump in school funding provided by the 2014 legislature, district leaders say that additional money is far from enough, and they have to ask voters for additional local revenues to cover building and program needs that can’t be put off.

A possible distraction – A statewide casino-expansion proposal, Amendment 68, is also on the ballot, and it promises more than $100 million in additional revenues for schools. District leaders are skeptical of A68’s promises and hope it doesn’t confuse voters about the need for local revenue. (Get details on A68 here.)

BEST off the ballot – For the first time in several years, 2014 ballots don’t include a long list of small districts seeking bond issues to raise local matching funds for Building Excellent Schools Today construction program grants. (There’s only one such local measure this year.) The state portion of that program has reached its ceiling for larger projects such as new schools and major renovations, so there’s no money for locals to match.

Chart

Voter mood – Finally, the 2014 election may provide an update on where some voters stand on school taxes. Voter attitudes have been on a roller coaster in this decade. District tax proposals received reasonable support in 2010, but 2011 was the worst year in memory for bonds and overrides. Voters were very supportive in 2012 but returned to their skeptical ways last year. Of course, voters rejected statewide proposals to increases taxes for schools in 2011 and 2013.

Boulder – the big ask

“This is a big ask, we understand that,” says Boulder Valley Superintendent Bruce Messinger when questioned about his district’s proposal for a $576.4 million bond issue. “It’s a hard choice.”

But, he added, “The facilities needs are not going to go away,” and if building systems begin to fail the 30,500-student district isn’t in a position to cover significant building costs from its general fund.

About half the money would be used to bring all district buildings “to acceptable standards,” he said, with the rest devoted to a variety of other needs. (See the district’s detailed facilities plan here.)

Boulder Valley Supt. Bruce Messinger / File photo
Boulder Valley Supt. Bruce Messinger / File photo

As is common with larger districts, Boulder went through a long planning and public consultation process before the board approved the ballot proposal in August.

Messinger said polling put the district’s overall approval rating is at “an all-time high” and that polling and focus groups indicate, “Taxpayers understand … schools are assets.”

While Messinger is feeling reasonably good about the proposal’s chances, he does note the possible of confusion with Amendment 68. “It’s a concern,” he said. “It’s on people’s minds.”

Boulder has had a history of success with its voters. It last lost an election in 2002, when voters rejected a $7.5 million override that would have funded technology improvements.

Adco’s “referendum” on school spending

Election history
  • Adams 12 – $9.9M override passed, $80M bond failed 2008
  • Adams 14 – $44M bond failed 2013
  • Adams 50 – $5.2M override failed 2013
  • Aurora – $15M override passed 2012
  • Boulder – $22.5M override passed 2010
  • Brighton – $4.8M override fail 2011
  • Cherry Creek – $125M bond, $25M override passed 2012
  • Colo. Springs 11 – $21.5M override failed 2008, $131.7M bond passed 2004
  • Dougco – $200M bond, $20M override failed 2011
  • Denver – $466M bond, $49M override passed 2012
  • Jeffco – $99M bond, $39M override passed 2012
  • Littleton – $80M bond passed 2013
  • Mapleton – $32M bond passed 2010
  • Poudre – $120M bond, $16M override passed 2010
  • St. Vrain – $14.8M override passed 2012

More information

While Denver, Douglas and Jefferson counties have but one school district each, Adams County is served by seven. Each district is considerably smaller than DPS or Jeffco, but combined the five largest districts in Adams had about the same enrollment as their neighboring counties did in 2013-14, about 85,000 students.

This year most Adams County voters have the rare opportunity to vote on school taxes at the same time. Those five districts – Adams 12-Five Star, Brighton, Commerce City (Adams 14), Mapleton and Westminster (Adams 50) – all have proposals on the ballot.

All but Brighton are seeking both bond issues and overrides for varying reasons. Each district is seeking bond money to upgrade existing buildings, while new schools would be built in growing parts of Adams 12, Brighton and Commerce City. Tax override revenues would be used to recruit and retain teachers, offset state budget cuts and cover a variety of needs. (See the spreadsheet at the bottom of this story for details on those district proposals and all tax measures statewide.)

Adams 12 Superintendent Chris Gdowski said the five sets of ballot measures weren’t coordinated but, “What’s driving it are common factors. We all have needs that haven’t been met.”

For Adams 12, he said, “The need is pressing, and we can’t wait any longer.”

Other county superintendent sounded the same note. “We decided to go this year because our needs just continue to mount,” said Mapleton Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio. “We have just been so far behind for so long … we just had to go.”

Westminster Superintendent Pamela Swanson said, “We’re trying to avoid any more cuts. We have some wonderful things happening, and we don’t want to take any steps backwards. We felt a moral obligation to go back out” to the voters, even though the district saw a $5.2 million override defeated last year.

Commerce City Superintendent Pat Sanchez had a bond issue defeated last year by about 300 votes. He called that a “hidden blessing” that forced the district “to be really crystal clear about what the voters are getting” this year. He and other Adams superintendents are hopeful that academic improvements in recent years will make voters more amendable to tax hikes.

Adams 12, Brighton and Mapleton are rated as “improvement” districts by the state accreditation system. Commerce City and Westminster are “priority improvement” districts but have moved up in recent years from “turnaround,” the lowest accreditation category.

Superintendents have varying answers about what happens if proposals are defeated. Gdowski said a loss could mean schedule changes in Adams 12. Sanchez said defeat “would change a five-year plan to a 10-year plan,” and Ciancio said, “If it doesn’t pass we’ll just have to keep going back to the ballot.”

Around the state

Two districts in El Paso County also have large measures on the ballot. Cheyenne Mountain is proposing a $45 million bond, and Falcon’s bond proposal totals $107.4 million.

Denver voters face a proposed sales tax increase and an extension for the Denver Preschool Program, which is separate from DPS. (Get more details here.)

There are no district proposals on the ballot this year in Denver, Douglas County, Jefferson County or in any of Arapahoe County’s seven districts.

State law bars school boards and districts from spending public funds on ballot measure campaigns.

The campaign load typically is carried by outside citizen campaign committees that raise money for brochures, yard signs and other materials. Such committees already have been formed in Boulder, in most of the Adams County districts and in Cheyenne Mountain and Falcon.

The bigger issue

Passage of bond issues and overrides in individual districts has the unwelcome side effect of increasing gaps between districts that have the political and financial capacity to pass them and those that don’t. (There’s a limit on district bond debt based on the value of property within a district, and there also are state ceilings on overrides.)

“The long range solution to this [school funding] is not doing this district by district,” Messinger said. “I worry that the gap [between districts] could widen over time,” said Gdowski.

But Sanchez, noting that there’s still a $900 million shortfall in state school funding, said it’s hard to districts to resist the pressure to raise their own money. “I think you’re going to see a trend of more bonds and mill levy overrides.”

This spreadsheet includes information gathered by the Colorado School Finance Project as of Oct. 6.

funding dance

Indiana to tap reserves to free up $140M for teacher pay, Holcomb promises

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Governor-Elect Eric Holcomb speaks to Republican supporters at an Election night event.

Indiana plans to free up $140 million over two years for schools with the goal of increasing teacher pay, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb pledged Tuesday night in his State of the State address.

The state will tap into its $2 billion in reserves to pay down a pension liability for schools, Holcomb said, reducing schools’ expenses so more money could go to educators.

“Just like paying off your mortgage frees up money in your personal budget, this state investment will save all local schools $140 million over the biennium with continued savings thereafter,” Holcomb said.

He said he hoped schools would use the savings to increase teacher salaries. Lawmakers said after the speech that they would look for ways to make sure local districts direct more dollars to teachers.

The freed-up funding would equate to relatively small raises for Indiana’s roughly 70,000 public school teachers. In a bill seeking designated funds for teacher pay, Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, estimated it would cost $315 million to raise educators’ salaries by 5 percent over two years.

The move to find the money to increase teacher pay comes after education leaders raised concerns over not having earmarked dollars. Holcomb previously suggested that schools use their overall funding, proposed to increase by 2 percent each year, for teachers’ salaries. Other Republican lawmakers have also proposed increasing teacher pay by reducing school budgets in other areas.

Still, the $140 million would come from reduced expenses, not a new influx of state dollars. Lawmakers would still have to approve the move.

“Personally, I think it’s a wise use of surplus,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis.

Against a backdrop of an ongoing teacher strike in Los Angeles and large-scale teacher demonstrations in places such as West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, Indiana has made addressing teacher pay a top priority in this year’s legislative session. Indiana ranks 18th highest in the nation for teachers salaries adjusted for cost of living, according to an analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics and Council of Community and Economic Research — leading some to fear teachers will flee to higher-paying states.

But while the issue has easily won bipartisan support and united unlikely allies, it has proved more difficult to find a solution — namely, the money — that satisfies educators and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“It’s too early to pick a number,” Bosma said, though both Republican and Democratic leaders agreed after the speech that the $140 million — while a “creative” approach — wasn’t enough.

“We can do that this year,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson. “We can find a way to give an increase in teacher pay this year. We don’t have to kick the can down the road. We don’t have to say, oh, let’s turn it back over to the local school districts and let them find the money.”

But a meaningful solution could take time: Holcomb also announced Tuesday night the formation of a commission to study teacher compensation and search for ways to improve salaries, with the goal of proposing action in 2021. Business leader Michael L. Smith, an investment fund co-founder and retired Anthem executive, will lead the commission.

“Teachers deserve compensation that reflects one of the most honorable, critical and challenging occupations in the state,” tweeted Lawrence Township teacher Tamara Markey, Indiana’s Teacher of the Year, who was among community leaders invited by House Republicans to provide social media commentary on the speech.

Holcomb’s State of the State speech also emphasized workforce development, including preparing high school students for careers. He introduced Mary Roberson, superintendent of Perry Central Community Schools, to tout the district’s partnerships with local manufacturers to give students hands-on training.

“A strong economy depends on a world-class workforce,” Holcomb said. “That workforce depends on a great education. A great education depends on great teachers.”

protest prep

Los Angeles teachers went on strike Monday. Here’s what you need to know.

Teachers, retired teachers and parents show their support for UTLA in front of Venice High School in Venice, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2019. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The nation’s second-largest school district will be upended Monday as Los Angeles teachers are set to go on strike.

Teachers and their union say they are fighting for higher pay, lower class sizes, and more support for district schools. The district says it agrees with many of the union’s demands, but can’t pay for them given its fiscal realities.

The United Teachers of Los Angeles rejected a final offer from the district Friday afternoon, which included steeper class size reductions and more nurses and counselors for schools. There was no bargaining over the weekend.

What will happen at Los Angeles schools on Monday?

Schools will remain open — with other staff, emergency substitutes, and parent volunteers supervising kids. Teachers will be outside picketing. Inside, the L.A. Times reports that “schools have been preparing to keep students together in large spaces and use online education when they can.”

Is this a continuation of the #RedForEd wave of teacher protest?

Yes and no. Schools staying open marks one crucial difference from what happened when teachers went on strike in West Virginia last year, closing schools for nearly two weeks. That was the start of a wave of teacher activism focused on school funding and teacher pay, reaching Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona.

The L.A. Times has a helpful look at why this strike is both similar to and different from the ones across the country last year. Unlike in those red states, it notes, California teachers can’t be portrayed as “victims of Republican machinations” because the state government is reliably Democratic:

An us-versus-them construct, however, does not translate readily to California, where unions are among the state’s most powerful special interests.

And L.A. teachers must face off against a district whose leaders echo their union’s demand for increased state and federal funding for schools.

The union leader also is trying to put forward a complex argument on funding. While [UTLA president Alex] Caputo-Pearl argues that the state needs to do much more, he also says that L.A. Unified is hoarding a fortune — and that district leadership is choosing to starve its schools.

What are the union and the district really fighting about?

The L.A. Times broke down the essential disagreement over funding in a separate story this weekend. In short: Although the district currently has a substantial surplus, the district’s analyses, as well as one from L.A. County, suggest it will soon turn into a deficit. The union claims the district is “hoarding” money, while the district says it’s simply being prudent. At the same time, a proposed budget from the state’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, could bring an infusion of new resources. Reporter Howard Blume ends it here:

Beutner says the union’s demands would cost $3 billion. That’s debatable, partly because the union has not responded to the district with specifics on how much smaller it is asking for classes to be. The union’s position, so far, is to demand the elimination of a contract clause that gives the district broad authority over class sizes. …

Everyone wants smaller class sizes — teachers, parents, students. But meaningful class-size reduction is one of the most expensive reforms in education.

What about charter schools?

Unlike in most places that saw teacher strikes last year, Los Angeles is set to see charter schools play a big role in striking teachers’ rhetoric.

The union has gone on the attack against charters, which serve about one in five Los Angeles public school students and are mostly non-unionized. UTLA recently called for stopping any new charters from opening, pinning the district’s financial struggles on their growth.

The union also believes that the district wants to implement a “portfolio model” of managing schools, a controversial idea that often brings about charter school growth and holds district and charter schools accountable for their results in similar ways. (The district says it has no such plans.)

These union–charter battles have deeply shaped the district’s politics. The last set of school board elections were the most expensive in American history, with charter supporters spending nearly $10 million and unions putting in over $5 million.

But the union’s contract demands only briefly touch on charters. Charters, though, are the focus of many district educators’ anger over not having the resources they say they need and, in the unions’ telling, amount to privatization of public education.

Some of L.A.’s charter schools share buildings with district schools, making some confrontation possible on Monday.

The head of the state charter association wrote an open letter to Caputo-Pearl before the strike. “Please be kind to both our District and charter community,” wrote Myrna Castrejón on Friday. “Students, parents, and school staff aren’t crossing picket lines to make political statements.” (The union’s strike guidelines tells members not to “get involved in confrontations or debates,” threaten people who cross the picket line, or block entrances for kids. “It’s okay to make adults wait a little while to get in [to schools], though,” UTLA says.)

As to the substantive debate, each side can point to research backing up one of their key points. Academic analyses from other states, as well as a union-backed report from Los Angeles, show that districts really do lose resources as charters grow, at least in the short term. At the same time, studies show Los Angeles charter students do better on state tests than similar students in district schools.

What does this mean for teacher unions nationwide?

As the strike kicks off, other teachers unions will be paying attention — wearing red in solidarity or watching for cues as they inch toward strikes of their own. In Denver, for one, the teachers union is entering its last week of negotiations. And as CALmatters noted on Jan. 11:

Issues at the forefront of the LAUSD dispute, such as rising pension costs, declining enrollment and the charged debate over charter schools, are also brewing in other school districts across the state.

The looming strike in Los Angeles has made ripples in local unions across California. Teachers in the Oakland Unified School District, for example, are nearing a potential strike and plan to rally Saturday similar to a demonstration UTLA held in downtown Los Angeles in mid-December.

What will the political ramifications of the strike be?

That’s not at all clear, and likely depends on the length of the strike and the public response. But there is a special election around the corner to fill the seventh seat on the closely divided LAUSD board. Expect the strike and its fallout to play a big role in the race.

A few prominent elected officials have also weighed in supporting teachers, including U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and California Rep. Ro Khanna — though most national Democrats have been silent.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is mulling a run for president, has tried to broker an agreement between the two sides, to no avail. A strike would complicate a campaign kickoff.

“Launching a presidential bid while thousands of chanting, sign-toting teachers take to the streets would seem to be a non-starter,” the L.A. Times wrote. “A strike could force Garcetti to push back any presidential announcement, as better-known rivals enter the race, soak up media attention and begin fundraising.”