The Douglas County Board of Education will gauge interest in a possible tax measure aimed at generating more money to address capital needs across the district.
At the Nov. 15 board meeting, the board directed the District Accountability Committee, Fiscal Oversight Committee, Long Range Planning Committee and Student Advisory Committee to raise awareness about the district's ongoing capital needs and fiscal challenges, and to explore potential solutions, including potential mill and bond issues.
“If and when the board decides to make a request to the taxpayers for a tax increase, it needs to be done with support from across the entire community and with a clear understanding of what the needs are and what the impacts of any measure passing or failing might be on our students and staff,” school board vice president Judith Reynolds said. “Support for any action must rise from the community and not be driven by the board.”
Before making a decision, Reynolds said she would weigh several factors, including the state of the economy, the amount of state funding and feedback and recommendations from the subcommittee.
Board member Wendy Vogel agreed that gathering widespread support would be critical to any new tax measure.
“I would support whatever our community thinks is appropriate,” Vogel said. “ In my view, this isn't a matter of what I would support, rather what the majority would support. After all, knowing my bias, I would most likely personally support a much larger tax increase than the majority of Douglas County voters, so my decisions need to be based on their wishes.”
The board encouraged the groups to include community members not currently associated with the committees to expand the reach of their efforts into the larger Douglas County community.
It asked for an update in May to assess feedback and consider community support for pursuing a mill or bond issue as early as the November 2017 election.
Bonds defeated in past
The community voted down a $200 million bond in 2011 that would have gone toward building three new schools in Castle Rock and Parker and a $29 million mill levy override that would have provided funding for instructional expenses and pay for performance for teachers.
In 2008, Douglas County rejected a $395 million bond and a $17 million mill levy override to support building new schools, improving student achievement, recruiting and retaining the workforce and improving the district's technological advances in the face of expanded enrollment.
“Unfortunately, the board has not been able to agree on a tax measure that would allow the community to decide if it is time to support well over $320 million in funding to meet maintenance and growth needs,” board member Anne-Marie Lemieux said. “We also have a significant deficit in teacher pay with average salaries of over $10,000 less than surrounding districts while we are suffering from a statewide teacher shortage.”
By not passing a tax measure to help provide more funding, Lemieux said the district has put itself at a disadvantage in recent years.
“Since Douglas County voters have not passed a bond or MLO (mill levy overrride) to support public education since 2006," she said, "it has become increasingly difficult to compete with other districts as well as provide well-maintained schools that offer a variety of programming our students need.”
Importance of support
Jason Virdin of Douglas County Parents said that while the group would support a tax measure, members also have concerns about how a divided board could come to an agreement.
“DCSD is currently facing an unprecedented level of capital needs with no source of funding. If we believed there was a good chance of a bond measure passing, we would support the question being placed on the ballot,” Virdin said. “However, we do not believe the community will support a bond question with the current division on the board of education and the lack of trust in the majority board directors. We would prefer the board table any discussion of a bond until these underlying issues are resolved.”
The group Taxpayers For Public Education said it would support a carefully constructed measure that would be specifically directed to take care of two very pressing issues within the district: capital needs and teacher compensation. However, it would not support an initiative without a statement of transparency and accountability from the district and the school board.
“We need to take care of these dire capital needs and make sure we help stem the tide of highly effective teachers leaving the district with a much-needed compensation increase,” Taxpayers for Public Education said in an email. “But, to make sure taxpayer dollars are used wisely, we need the board to pledge to be transparent in how dollars are spent, and not re-direct that money, as they have in the past, to programs that offer little value to students, teachers and the community.”
During the recent election, the Jefferson County School District failed to pass a $33 million mill levy override that would have gone toward attracting and retaining teachers and hiring more mental health staff and a $535 million bond proposal that would have funneled money into building new schools and improving and repairing aging ones.
The outcome in Jefferson County raises questions about the feasibility of a tax measure passing in Douglas County.
“The outcome of the election in Jefferson County this fall reiterates to me how important widespread community support is for any measure,” Reynolds said. “The community at large has to have confidence that any tax increase is needed and will be used wisely.”
Vogel agreed that the failure to pass a measure in Jefferson County could be repeated in Douglas.
“It is concerning to me that both the Jeffco and Thompson (Loveland) school districts failed to pass their tax increases," Vogel said, "as both have been hit hard with reforms like Douglas County.”
Board member David Ray said only once action has been taken to ensure that every available dollar is being spent at the student level, is it appropriate to ask taxpayers for assistance.
“I don’t know all the circumstances in Jeffco with regards to why voters did not pass their recent ballot initiatives,” Ray said. “However, they are in a similar position as Douglas County, where trust in the school board is in the process of being rebuilt. Hopefully, our community will continue to see our actions where spending is focused on learners, as opposed to district-level initiatives.”