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.

School Finance

Teacher raises would survive $211 million cut from Indianapolis Public Schools funding request

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Indianapolis’ largest school district cut about $211 million Tuesday from its request for extra funding, in a bid to win public support for the proposal.

That lower price tag comes with tradeoffs, district officials said. Even if voters approve the new plan, the district would dip into its cash reserves, put off building maintenance, and ditch expanded transportation plans, such as additional busing for students who move partway through the school year.

The new request also reduces how much the district would raise to pay for services for students with disabilities, though it was initially unclear by how much and how that could affect students.

But district officials said they still expected to be able to give raises to teachers if the referendums pass.

The scaled-back request would raise about $725 million over eight years, significantly less than the initial proposal of nearly $1 billion.

The board voted 6-0 in favor of reducing the amount of money the district is seeking, backing off the number members approved two months ago.

Board member Kelly Bentley said many school districts around the state have asked taxpayers for more money.

“We all own property in IPS. None of us want to see our taxes go up,” she said. But, she added, “I am confident that it’s money that’s going to be well spent, and it’s money that is necessary.”

Instead of pulling back spending on teachers and school staff, the district is making the new plan work by adjusting revenue expectations, said Chief Financial Manager Weston Young. The proposal is built on the assumption that state revenue will increase 1 percent each year, and the district will no longer hold as much money in reserves, he said.

“We are still committed to our students through our compensation for teachers and the wraparound services that serve those kids,” Young said.

Reducing the request could help build enthusiasm for the tax increase, which has not gotten much vocal community support. Instead, the referendums have been met with some concern over the size of the ask. But even though they have pared down their plan, district leaders will still need to persuade voters in May to raise their own taxes.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the new plan is a balancing act between what taxpayers can bear and the cost of providing the level of service that families need. Ultimately, he said, the tax increase would pay dividends by helping the district prepare students for college and careers.

“This is one of those situations where you pay now or you pay later,” he said.

The move cut the potential tax increase for homeowners in IPS to $0.58 per $100 of assessed value, down from the initial proposal of $0.73. For taxpayers with houses at the district’s median value — $123,500 — the new plan would increase property taxes by $17.70 per month for operating expenses and $5.54 per month for building improvements, according to the district.

The referendum the board reduced would pay for operating expenses, such as teacher salaries, and under the new request, it would raise about $66 million per year for eight years. That’s down from the initial request of about $92 million per year.

Under the new plan, about $49 million of the money raised each year would go to staff pay, while the remaining $17 million would help pay for services and supplies, regular maintenance, and transportation.

A second measure, which was not changed, would pay for about $200 million in improvements to buildings, primarily safety updates such as new lighting and door security. Both measures are expected to go before voters in May.

School Finance

Indianapolis Public Schools leaders could scale back their appeal for tax increases

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

With little public support and mounting criticism, Indianapolis’ largest school district may scale back its nearly $1 billion request for increased funding from taxpayers.

Indianapolis Public Schools Board President Michael O’Connor told Chalkbeat on Wednesday that the board would likely consider a proposal next week that would reduce the potential tax increase.

All the board members present voted in favor of asking voters for up to $936 million over eight years at a meeting this past December. But there is a consensus among board members that the original proposal would raise taxes too much, O’Connor said.

“The school system needs more revenue,” O’Connor said. But “we think that’s high.”

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration is working on coming up with a revised proposal, district chief of staff Ahmed Young confirmed. But officials have not yet finalized how much the amount might be trimmed or what services would be reduced to bring down the price tag.

The revelation comes on the heels of stinging public criticism leveled against the district for asking for such a large tax increase. On Wednesday, Indiana State Board of Education member and Indianapolis resident Gordon Hendry slammed IPS’ plan to raise taxes during a state board meeting.

“This may be the most nonchalant billion-dollar tax increase ever approved by anyone,” said Hendry, a Democrat.

The original plan, which was approved by the state for inclusion on the May ballot less than a week ago, includes a measure that would raise up to $92 million per year for operating expenses such as teacher salaries and one that would pay for up to $200 million in improvements to school buildings.

If voters signed off on the operating referendum, their property taxes would rise by as much as $0.59 on each $100 of assessed value, while the capital referendum would raise $0.1384 per $100 of assessed valuation.

The board will not alter the referendum that provides money for building improvements, O’Connor said. But it will consider changing how much it seeks for operating expenses, the part responsible for the bulk of the tax increase.

In the months since the original proposal was unveiled in November, few advocates or community organizations have spoken out in support of the referendums. Instead, groups such as the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce stayed quiet as they discussed the plan internally.

It’s important to the city that the school district is successful, said Mark Fisher, chief policy officer for the Chamber. There also is general agreement that the district needs more funding, he said. But the group is waiting to hear more from the administration about how the money will be spent.

“It’s a large amount,” Fisher said. “Is this the right amount?”

Tony Mason from the Indianapolis Urban League raised similar questions.

“IPS definitely requires more support to serve the vast needs of its diverse student population,” Mason wrote in a statement. But the district must make the case in detail for the substantial amount it is requesting.

“IPS needs to be mindful of the already existing and unique tax burdens of those living in the IPS district,” he added.

The district has said the referendums are essential because of declining federal, state, and local revenue. According to the district, the operating referendum would pay for special education services, transportation, and regular maintenance. But the bulk of the money, 72 percent, would help pay regular raises to teachers. The referendum to pay for improvements to school buildings would fund updates such as new lighting and door security.

If it passed, the original operating referendum would increase the district’s annual revenue by nearly $3,000 per student. By comparison, a referendum passed in Washington Township in 2016 raised annual revenue by less than $600 per student.

When the initial plan was announced in December, Ferebee told Chalkbeat that political considerations were not used to determine the amount of the referendums.

“We didn’t arrive at this number based on what we thought would be politically appropriate and soothing, but what we actually need to continue to thrive as an organization,” Ferebee said at the time.

But it appears the political challenge of asking voters to dramatically raise their own taxes is more salient for the board.

Board members have privately heard concerns from constituents about the size of the referendums, O’Connor said. He said the district also needs to present more detail to taxpayers about exactly how the money would be spent.

Because $92 million per year is the estimated maximum amount the district could raise if the measure passes, it was always a ceiling, said Young. After the board voted to pursue the initial proposal, the district has continued to do “due diligence.”

“It’s an evolutionary process,” he added.

On Tuesday, school board member Kelly Bentley told Chalkbeat that reducing the amount the district is seeking could help increase the chance that voters approve the referendums and reduce the burden on taxpayers.

“I believe strongly that we are asking no more than what we need,” Bentley said. “But I would rather be successful than not successful in the referenda.”

Correction: February 15, 2018: This story has been corrected to attribute the statement from the Indianapolis Urban League to Tony Mason.