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

School health clinics could take a hit under rule to restrict green cards for immigrants who receive public aid

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

One student stands out in Dr. Viju Jacob’s mind when he thinks about all the patients he’s seen in his 15 years at school-based health clinics: a Central American immigrant enrolled at a Bronx high school in 2012.

The student did not have insurance, which Jacob said is common for new immigrants, but the clinic offers free care regardless of a student’s immigration or insurance status. That’s thanks to Medicaid funding from other students’ claims.

Over the next four years, the student returned to the clinic, located in his school, when he needed a physical or simple treatment. But it wasn’t just his physical health that improved.

“He got a lot of soft emotional support,” Jacob said. “Coming to us, having people who spoke his language or his native language to sort of encourage him, help him with filling out forms.”

Jacob and immigrant advocates worry students like this may not get the support they need under a new federal proposal that would make it tougher for immigrants to successfully seek green cards if they rely on public benefits.

“Especially in New York City and in the New York City public school system, a large portion of the student population in some shape or form is on Medicaid or Medicaid managed care,” Jacob said. “That is such a large pool that could be affected if this rule gets implemented.”

To receive a green card, immigrants currently have to prove they won’t be a burden on the government, so officials already consider the cash benefits that they receive when reviewing applications. But now, for the first time, the Department of Homeland Security wants to expand the rule so that green cards can be denied to immigrants who rely on benefits such as  non-emergency Medicaid, Medicare Part D, food stamps or forms of housing assistance.

Researchers and immigration advocates believe that even though a final decision on the proposal is months away, news of this rule could persuade large swaths of immigrants to halt their public benefits, out of fear it will affect their ability to become permanent U.S. residents. In a recent analysis, the city estimated that 75,000 New York City immigrants may have to choose between benefits and a green card.

And fewer Medicaid enrollees means fewer dollars rolling into clinics that serve at least 387 schools across the system, since they operate through partnerships with healthcare providers and depend, in part, on Medicaid funding that students may claim. It’s too early to tell the exact impact, but advocates, analysts, and even the federal government have acknowledged that the rule change could result in loss of funding.

“It’s bad enough for the families, and it’s even worse for us because we rely heavily on that funding stream,” said Jacob.

Clinics were a big part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first-term education agenda, which involved providing more schools with wrap-around services.

“Taking away services that keep children well-fed and healthy is wrong,” said Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokeswoman for de Blasio, in a statement to Chalkbeat. “We’ll continue to ensure that our children, regardless of their and their family’s immigration status, have the resources they need to succeed in and out of the classroom.”

It’s not clear how many children are enrolled in the school-based clinics or how many, on average, use them. The city’s Department of Education didn’t respond to requests for comment about the rule change, including what portion of Medicaid funds buoy school health clinics, which are run by medical centers, local hospitals and community organizations. 

According to Jacob, who is also board chairman of New York School Based Health Alliance, it’s typical for clinics to receive between two-thirds to half of their funding from Medicaid. The rule is expected to threaten the livelihood of similar clinics in other states, such as Colorado.

If enough people pull out of Medicaid, clinics could seek specific grant funding instead, Jacob said.

This is the latest immigration issue that New York City’s top education officials have had to grapple with. In the past, they’ve been quick to respond, such as reassuring families that their information is safe with the school system. Last year, a school in Queens turned federal immigration agents away after they showed up and asked about a fourth-grader. (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it was an administrative inquiry.)

Last March, the school system updated guidance for principals on immigration issues, stating that only local law enforcement can enter a school unless without a warrant or unless imminent harm is expected.

The Department of Homeland Security touts its proposal by saying its primary benefit would “help ensure that aliens who apply for admission to the United States, seek extension of stay or change of status, or apply for adjustment of status are self-sufficient, i.e., do not depend on public resources to meet their needs but rather rely on their own capabilities and the resources of their family, sponsor, and private organizations.”

The rule change wouldn’t include free and reduced-price lunch, which is universal in New York City. The rule also wouldn’t apply to families making less than 15 percent of the federal poverty level, refugees, asylum-seekers, legal immigrants in the military or immigrants who receive assistance after natural disasters.

Still, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that a “chilling effect” could even dissuade people who are enrolled in the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which is not included in the proposal, from continuing to receive the benefit. Other analyses come to a similar conclusion, including a June report from by the Migrant Policy Institute.

“In theory people should understand that they don’t need to disenroll their child from benefits because that’s not going to affect them,” said Mike Greenberg, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, which did an analysis of the “chilling effect” this rule could have. “In practice it may still have that effect because this is very complicated, and we’re operating in an environment of so much fear and uncertainty.”

Beyond clinics losing funding, immigrant parents might be too scared to let their children go to an in-school clinic. Advocates said there is a fear among immigrants over what information government institutions are collecting and how it could be used against them.

Christina Samuels, manager of education policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, said her organization has raised these concerns with the education department, which has said it would protect families’ information. School health clinics don’t ask about immigration status.

In Jacob’s experience, students of different ages use the school health clinics for different reasons. Elementary-school students tend to show up because their parents’ work hours are at odds with doctors’ appointment times, and they can’t afford to take a day off. Those children may have an injury looked at, receive treatment for a stomach ache, or get an immunization.

Middle-schoolers usually get their shots or physicals, and some start to ask about reproductive health. And in high school, students receive a number of services, and preventative and emergency contraception may be addressed.

Outside organizations help staff counselors and social workers at some city schools, which staffers say are already stretched thin. Those, too, could also see more demand as students lose reliable access to food and healthcare, Samuels said.

She also pointed to the mental stress on immigrant students digesting another immigrant-related proposal out of Washington, such as  the proposed ban on travelers from certain Muslim countries.

“Now we’re getting into a period where we’re really concerned about the mental health and behavioral health of students,” Samuels said.

City Hall officials have blasted the proposed rule, but have also cautioned that no changes have gone into effect. In a recent press conference, De Blasio said President Donald Trump is trying to “hurt the very people who are contributing to our economy and our future. It makes no sense and we are going to fight it.”

Last week, the federal government opened a 60-day period that allows public comment on its rule. After that, officials will take another 60 days to make a final decision.

More money

‘We need the funding, and so do our kids.’ Colorado teachers take to the streets for Amendment 73

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer
Denver teachers line Colfax Avenue to urge voters to approve Amendment 73, a tax increase to raise money for education.

Waving “Yes on Amendment 73” signs, Denver teachers formed red-shirted clusters along Colfax Avenue Friday afternoon.

“We’re just trying to get people to support teachers,” said Danette Slater, an elementary teacher at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval in northwest Denver. “We need the funding, and so do our kids.”

Amendment 73 would raise Colorado’s corporate tax rate and the personal income tax rate on people earning more than $150,000 a year to generate $1.6 billion a year in additional funding for education. The state’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that voters approve any proposed tax increase. Two previous attempts to raise taxes for education have failed.

“Girls Just Wanna Have Funding,” said Slater’s handmade sign.

The Denver demonstration was one of 27 teacher actions around the state, as the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, prepares for a major push during October to rally support for Amendment 73. Organizers with the Denver Classroom Teachers Association had hoped for a larger turnout, with as many as a thousand teachers lining Colfax from East High School to the Colorado Education Association headquarters at Grant Street and Colfax near the Capitol. Instead, a few hundred teachers formed a series of small groups at key intersections.

Denver Public Schools may have dampened turnout with a memo to building principals saying that teachers who wanted to leave school early to engage in advocacy must take unpaid leave and giving principals the authority to deny leave and discipline any teachers who left anyway.

The small numbers did not dampen the enthusiasm of the teachers and community members who were demonstrating.

“It’s a Friday afternoon at the end of a long week,” said M.J. Jobe, a parent volunteer in the Cherry Creek district who was demonstrating with her husband Jarrad Jobe, a Denver Public Schools teacher. “Everyone is here because they care about kids and care about education. If we vote no, what kind of message are we sending to our kids?”

Passing drivers honked their support, and the teachers cheered in response.

Luke Ragland of the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado opposes Amendment 73. He said the tax measure has been sold to teachers as a way to raise pay, but there’s no guarantee that the money will reach teachers’ paychecks or improve educational outcomes for students.

Ragland points to trends over the last several decades in which teacher salaries have decreased when adjusted for inflation, even as more money has gone to schools. Administrative costs eat up a larger share of school budgets, something Ragland believes is driven as much or more by growing regulation at the federal and state level than by high administrative salaries.

“The trend is bad, and just adding more money is not going to change those trends,” he said. “The problem is real, but the solution that Amendment 73 offers is not.”

PHOTO: Aurora Education Association
Aurora teachers demonstrate in support of Amendment 73.

While education funding has increased in recent years with the strong economy, Colorado lawmakers have withheld roughly $7.5 billion from schools since the Great Recession. Colorado currently ranks 28th among U.S. states in per-pupil funding and 31st in the country for teacher pay, but the competitiveness of its teacher salaries – the difference between teacher pay and the wages earned by other professionals with similar levels of education – is among the worst in the nation.

Like many Denver teachers, Jarrad Jobe, a science teacher at Denver Center for International Studies Baker, has a lot of unanswered questions about administrative spending in the district. (Denver administrators, for their part, have tried to reassure the public with new online budget tools.) He has 35 students in each class, and his classroom doesn’t have a proper whiteboard. Jobe believes too much money gets spent on “middle management,” but he also believes the entire pie needs to get larger. Everything has gotten more expensive, and school funding hasn’t kept pace, he said.

M.J. Jobe has a close eye on Cherry Creek’s finances from her seat on a parent advisory committee. Jobe believes the wealthier suburban district is well run and transparent about its spending, and its teachers are among the highest paid in the Denver metro area. But teachers don’t have money for field trips, and the band program exists only due to the private fundraising efforts of parents, she said.

Dakota Prosch, who works with Slater at Sandoval, said she’s relying on promises made by the Denver school board that teacher pay will be a top priority if Amendment 73 passes. Opponents of the measure also fear higher taxes will hurt Colorado’s economy, but Prosch said struggling schools and teachers looking for better opportunities elsewhere will also hurt the economy.

“You can’t have good schools without good teachers, and you can’t have good teachers when across the border you can earn $10,000 more and be in a low-cost area,” she said. Teachers in Wyoming have much higher average pay than their colleagues in Colorado.

Standing nearby, Becka Hendricks said the idea that new revenue will go to ever-increasing administrative costs is one of her fears, even as she demonstrates in favor of Amendment 73.

But at the end of the day, she believes schools need more money. Hendricks, who teaches math to students aged 17 to 21 at Emily Griffith High School, said too many schools don’t even have basic materials or the support staff that students need to be successful. Class sizes are too large, and teacher salaries are too low.

“When we fight for these things with the district, the district’s answer over and over again is, ‘We don’t have the money,’” she said. “If this passes, we can say, ‘We know you have the money.’”