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Colorado is near the bottom of states in school funding. That’s why there are nearly 40 bond and mill levy override questions on ballots this fall.

From new buildings to mental health counselors to teacher pay increases, schools have a growing list of needs for more cash

A volunteer marks a vehicle in support of the proposed Douglas County bond and mill levy override after school in Highlands Ranch this month. The measures are among about 40 from school districts on ballots across Colorado this fall. (Kim Mecham, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Robert Framel is the superintendent of Kit Carson schools, plus the trigonometry teacher, and the precalculus teacher, and the sixth-grade math teacher.

He picked up the math classes after he couldn’t find a qualified teacher willing to move to the eastern Colorado town of 400 people and work for a school system that offers a starting salary of $30,000.

“It’s never a dull moment,” Framel said. “I’m not the only one that wears multiple hats. When it’s all said and done, we’re basically running on a skeleton crew to do the best we can for our students.”

Kit Carson School District is among the dozens of school districts across Colorado — from Douglas and Jefferson counties to La Veta and Lamar — asking local voters on the November ballot for more money, either through bond issues, mill levy overrides, or in the case of Steamboat Springs, renewal of a city sales tax that funds schools.

District leaders say Colorado’s school funding system has left them strapped for funds to replace worn-out buildings, recruit and retain teachers, improve security or hire enough mental health counselors to keep up with student need. Nearly 40 ballot questions are up for decision in November.

MORE: Colorado’s broken school funding system, explained.

Kit Carson, which has 114 students from preschool through 12th grade in a single, 1950s-era building, will scrape the old school and build a new one on the same property if its bond issue passes. The rural district will get $24 million from a state grant program if its voters agree to chip in $8 million, a total of $32 million for a new school.

School districts are allowed to seek no more than 20 percent of the assessed value of the local tax base, which in Kit Carson comes to about $8 million, not enough to even fix its current, worn-out building, Framel said. The new school wouldn’t happen without the grant.

The district has been shortchanged about $200,000 per year, a total of about $1 million in the past decade, under what Colorado has called the “negative factor” in its school funding formula, he said. Beginning in 2009, the state legislature added the “budget stabilization” to the school finance formula, reducing how much the state gives school districts in order to hit a funding target in the state education budget.

The state’s total funding shortfall — the gap between what the state constitution spells out and what Colorado actually gives school districts after the adjustment  — has reached more than $7 billion since the Great Recession.

Colorado’s per-pupil funding, meanwhile, has plummeted compared to the national average, dropping from $232 more than the national average in 1982 to about $2,800 below the national average now. The state, as its population booms, adds 6,000 to 7,000  students each year to the school system.

“Between that and the lack of funding for over a decade, it compounds the teacher shortage we have and how we compare nationally,” said Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project, an organization that promotes education funding.

There are 19 school districts asking for bond issues and 18 seeking mill levy overrides, which are taxes imposed on local property owners. More Colorado districts likely would have sought mill levy overrides had Amendment 73 — a proposed $1.6 billion statewide tax hike for schools — not made the ballot, Rainey said. A couple of the districts seeking tax increases have promised not to go through with it if the statewide measure passes, and others could decide the same if they get an influx of cash from Amendment 73 and manage to pass a local mill levy override in the same election.  

The amount of local money sought by school districts through bond measures this fall is higher than previous years and shows that fund-raising “primarily has to be done locally,” Rainey said. “It’s a reflection of the funding gap that there is in this state for facilities,” she said.

Colorado has no function at the legislative level that allows for increasing taxes to pay for new school buildings or renovations without voter approval, due to the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

An analysis by the Colorado Department of Education in 2010 found $18 billion in capital construction needs for school buildings and maintenance. That report led to the creation of the state’s BEST grant program — Building Excellent Schools Today, which is the program Kit Carson and several other small, rural districts are counting on to match local funds this year. It’s funded through state land trust funds, lottery funds and marijuana taxes.

MORE: Colorado voters could drastically change the state’s school funding this November. Here’s your guide to the ballot.

In Douglas County, the third-largest district in the state, voters will decide on a $40 million levy override plus a $250 million bond. The stakes are high as the district hasn’t passed a bond or mill levy override since 2006, failing in 2008 and again in 2011. In the meantime, Cherry Creek School District has passed three, totaling about $70 million.

What’s different now? Superintendent Thomas Tucker, who was hired after voters flipped the conservative, pro-voucher school board to a more progressive one last November, said the district is “crying out” for building improvements, better teacher pay and increased mental health staff.

Vehicles in Douglas County are decorated in support of the upcoming school bond and mill levy override election. The district failed in its last two attempts at raising local funds for the district. (Kim Mecham, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“What is fundamentally different is a majority of our taxpayers want to see our district deliver a top-quality education where each of our 68,000 students is college-ready,” he said. They also want more offerings to prepare students for other pathways after high school and improved security measures, Tucker said.

Given the extra funds, the district would improve its ratio of mental health counselors to one for every 250 students, instead of the current one for 350. It also would hire a full-time counselor for every elementary, middle and high school. The current budget does not include elementary school counselors.

Many districts seeking mill levy overrides vowed to spend some of the money on mental health, a growing expense for schools trying to implement suicide prevention and other mental health programs.

“We’re going to have to address these issues at the local, grassroots level,” Tucker said, noting that the legislature has failed to approve funding targeted for mental health in schools.

The funds would also go toward upping salaries for teachers, who make less than their counterparts in nearby districts. Douglas County teachers are paid $19,000 less on average than teachers in Cherry Creek and $13,000 less than those in Littleton, a pay gap that accounts for the district losing one out of five teachers in 2017, district officials said.

Douglas County’s state funding shortfall was nearly $50 million this year, and a total of $540 million in the decade since the Great Recession, said the district’s chief financial officer, Scott Smith.

In Littleton, a $298 million bond would pay for a new middle school and an elementary school, both “at the end of their life,” Superintendent Brian Ewert said. It would also fund a new elementary school in a growing neighborhood where students are now bused to other schools, as well as new desks and other furniture at all schools.

The average age of a school building in the district is 58 years and many are in need of upgrades to meet security and disability standards.

Littleton Public Schools has missed out on $125 million in state funding in the past decade due to the “negative factor,” Ewert said. “There is no way to get those dollars back into public education without going to the voters, because of TABOR (the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights).”

“These kinds of cuts have just been incendious over time,” he said. “Now we are at a place in our communities where we are absolutely desperate.”

Other bond and mill levy overrides on the ballot next month, as compiled by the Colorado School Finance Project

  • Bennett: $5 million bond to construct new elementary school classrooms to keep up with enrollment growth.
  • Clear Creek: $5 million bond to improve and repair elementary school playgrounds, a new boiler and a backup generator, among other needs.
  • Garfield RE-2: $5.7 million bond for eight new elementary classrooms.
  • Harrison School District: $180 million bond for renovations at all schools to improve safety, security and update requirements for people with disabilities, updating two elementary schools to accommodate kindergarten through eighth grade, plus a new middle school.
  • Jefferson County Public Schools: $567 million bond for safety and security upgrades, various building improvements and maintenance.
  • Lewis-Palmer 38: $36.5 million bond for a new elementary school and conversion of Bear Creek Elementary into a middle school.
  • Thompson Valley: $149 million bond to improve safety, including security and fire alarm systems, plus a backlog of maintenance issues at every school in the district, constructing a new K-8 school and additional elementary classrooms.

Local bond elections with anticipated matching state grants

  • Ellicott SD 22: $4.37 million bond for secure school entrances, a cafeteria expansion, high school additions and disability regulations.
  • Hinsdale County: $3.95 million bond for safety, security and health regulations, a new gym and various maintenance.
  • La Veta: $5.5 million bond to build a pre-K through 12th-grade school, including athletic facilities.
  • Lamar: $3.9 million bond for security and mechanical upgrades.
  • Manzanola 3J: $2 million bond to remodel high school and add elementary wing.
  • Meeker: $39.7 million bond for new high school and bus garage.
  • Trinidad: $4.75 million bond for renovations to middle school to meet health and safety standards.
  • Weld County (Eaton) School District RE2: $75 million bond for safety and security measures at all schools, additional classrooms, new elementary school.
  • Wray RD-2: $15.5 million bond for renovations and additions to preschool-12th grade building.

Mill Levy Overrides:

  • Adams 12 Five Star: $27 million to attract and retain teachers, improve student safety, expand job-training programs and reduce class size.
  • Archuleta School District 50: $1.7 million for recruitment, safety officers, full-day kindergarten, increasing salaries.
  • Aurora Public Schools: $35 million for student health, safety and learning investments.
  • Bennett 29J: $8 million for classroom construction and facility needs.
  • Bethune: 15.2 mills for student safety upgrades, facilities upkeep.
  • Clear Creek: $998,000 for retention and staff salaries, student transportation.
  • Elizabeth School District: $1.59 million to attract and retain teachers, improve safety measures.
  • Garfield RE-2: $3.9 million for teacher retention, will go forward only if Amendment 73 does not pass.
  • Hayden:  $321,473 for retaining teachers, maintenance upgrades.
  • Jeffco Public Schools: $33 million for teacher retention, mental health support and staff.
  • Lewis – Palmer 38: $1 million for professional development to support safety, security and student wellness for all schools.
  • Pueblo City 60: $6 million for educational improvements, teacher salaries, mental health services.
  • Sheridan: $3 million for safety and security, salary increases.
  • Telluride: $1.2 million for teacher recruitment, goes forward only if Amendment 73 does not pass.
  • Thompson Valley: $13.8 million for maintaining current class sizes, staff retention, new textbooks.
  • Trinidad: $8.2 million for recruiting and retaining teachers, renovations and repairs to buildings, school bus maintenance.
  • Westminster Public Schools: $9.9 million for construction and maintenance, school safety improvements, expanding vocational programs, attracting teachers and mental health staff.
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