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Ballots For Buildings: Front Range School Districts Ask Voters For Cash

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Ann Marie Awad
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KUNC
The Greeley-Evans school district is asking voters to allow a $12 million mill levy override to improve schools and upgrade security and tech. The appeal will appear on the novermber ballot under resolution 3A.

Colorado continues to see population growth, which is leaving many schools facing a problem: too many students, too little room. This year, the squeeze is pushing more local school districts to turn to voters for relief.

Seven districts along the Front Range have approved tax increase or bond sale resolutions for their local ballots. Nearly all the appeals identify maintenance, new buildings, improvements and security upgrades as pressing needs.

Since 2010, state officials have used a budgeting tool that allows them to fund schools below what is required under the School Finance Act of 1994. Due to the "negative factor" invoked by the legislature, schools will see $855 million less in state funding for the 2015-2016 school year. In 2010 - the first year of reduced state funding - that number was far less - $130 million.

Colorado ranks 40th in the nation when it comes to per-pupil spending. According to the Colorado School Finance Project, the state would be 28th on that list were it not for the negative factor.

Marijuana taxes were meant to ease some of the pain, but many school districts are reminding voters that it’s not that simple. The state’s Building Excellent Schools Today Fund is funded in part by marijuana taxes. That has indeed paid for some school improvements around the state in the past few years. However, the competitive grant process requires districts to match a portion of the money. For cash-strapped districts, such a match may not be possible.

That’s why school districts are turning to two tools to close funding shortfalls: bond sales - which allow districts to sell shares of their debt, then repay them down the road with interest, and mill levy overrides - temporary hikes in local property taxes. Voter approval is needed for both.

Denver Public Schools

Both of the state’s largest school districts - Denver Public Schools and Jefferson County Public Schools - are asking voters to authorize bond sales and mill levies this November. DPS will ask voters to allow a $572 bond sale, as well as a $56.6 million mill levy override, to raise a combined $628 million.

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Credit Courtesy of Denver Public Schools
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The bond is not expected to cost taxpayers. The mill levy will raise property taxes. The district estimates the increase will be around $10 a month for homes around the median price for the Denver metro, which is $329,000.

Here’s how DPS would invest the money, if voters give the green light:

  • $252 million for maintenance, specifically targeting buildings constructed before 1969. According to DPS, that’s more than half of the buildings in the district. A $70 million chunk of that maintenance investment would be devoted to installing central air in 79 schools that don’t have it.
  • $142 million for new school construction. The district projects 4,000 new students by 2020. This line item would build new schools or expand existing campuses around the district.
  • $108 million for classroom upgrades, which would include building new science labs.
  • $70 million for technology. Ultimately the goal is to offer one device per student to supplement classroom learning.
  • $15 million for bolstered mental health support staff. This includes psychologists, social workers and nurses.
  • $14.5 million towards professional development for teachers.
  • $8 million for college and career prep programs
  • $6.8 million towards early literacy initiatives to ensure students are reading at grade level by grade three.
  • Another $6.6 million towards tech, allowing schools to also replace outdated devices.
  • $4.9 million more for proactive maintenance, meaning maintenance work that may need to be tackled in the future.
  • $400,000 to provide transportation for low-income high school students.

Learn more here.

Jefferson County Public Schools

JeffCo schools are also going to voters with a big ask: a $535 million bond sale and a $33 million mill levy override. This comes four years after the district’s last bond appeal to voters, which won JeffCo Public Schools $99 million towards facilities projects. The district’s bond request in 2008 failed amid the recession.

This year’s appeal would set voters back approximately $4.12 a month per every $100,000 of residential home value, according to the district. Zillow reports the median home value in Jefferson County is $358,900, meaning homeowners may be looking at almost $200 a year in additional property taxes. For non-residential property owners, the rate is higher at $15.03 a month per $100,000 of property value.

Here’s how JeffCo would spend the money:

  • $535 million for capital improvements. That’s the entire bond ask. Much of the capital improvement plan is for adding new classrooms or renovating existing classrooms. A handful of school buildings will be replaced entirely, mostly in the central part of the district.
  • $33 million - the entire mill levy override ask - would mostly go to fill a gap officials say is left by diminished state funding. Leftover cash may be put towards salaries, mental health support staff and some of the district’s charter schools - all secondary uses recommended by JeffCo’s board.

Learn more here.

Adams 12 Five Star School District

The ask from Adams 12 Five Star school district is meager compared to the district’s neighbors detailed above. Voters will be asked whether to approve a $350 million bond sale. According to the district, the bond is not likely to cost voters a dime, because the district has managed its debt well.

The district says if the bond is not approved, cutbacks in classroom programing will be necessary to offset the cost of much needed repairs. New district boundaries will also be needed to alleviate overcrowding at Adams 12 Five Star schools.

Here’s how the district would spend the bond money, if it passes:

  • The lion’s share of the bond would go to maintenance at beleaguered schools within the district. Arapahoe Ridge Elementary, for instance, needs new walls, ceiling tiles, flooring and equipment, along with an addition to the building for an oversized student population. Even worse is Stukey Elementary, which needs major plumbing improvements, electrical and safety upgrades, including to playground structures. Adams 12 Five Star have identified 23 schools as “poor” or “critical,” needing massive renovation.
  • Major reconstruction at certain sites like STEM labs.
  • Instructional upgrades like teaching tools and technology. Dollar amounts for these types of upgrades will hashed out through community meetings if the bond is approved.

Learn more here.

Thompson School District

Loveland-area schools are asking for a $288 million bond sale and an $11 million mill levy override. Much of the money is to pay for deferred maintenance and new school construction, as well as closing a teacher salary gap between Thompson and surrounding districts.

According to Thompson, the mill levy override would cost homeowners $4.31 a month per $100,000 of property value. Zillow reports the median home value in Loveland is $285,900, so many homeowners could be paying about $150 more in property taxes if it passes.

Here’s how Thompson would spend the money:

  • $145 million for a new Loveland High School, complete with a pool.
  • $34,223,000 for a new K-8 school.
  • $49,204,474 for what the district calls essential repairs across all schools.
  • $2,992,219 to build a new wing at Berthoud Elementary.
  • $14,500,221 to turn the current Loveland High School into a K-8 school.
  • $5,773,862 to remodel Bill Reed Middle School, making it a K-8 school.
  • $14,283,352 to remodel Thompson Valley High School.
  • $453,921 for a new bus loop at Turner Middle School.
  • $3 million for a new addition to Berthoud High School.
  • $1,695,000 for a new gymnasium at Loveland Classical charter school.
  • $867,000 for improvements at New Vision charter school.
  • $13 million for a new pool at Berthoud High School.
  • $2.2 million for new artificial turf for four high schools.
  • $916,951 for track and field improvements at three high schools.

Learn more here.

Poudre School District

Larimer County voters facing an already crowded ballot will be asked whether to approve a $375 million bond sale and a $8 million mill levy override for PSD. The district cites significant growth in enrollment as the biggest driving force behind the proposal. Also, a handful of school buildings in the district are more than 100 years old, and need updates.

If both measures fail, the district plans to use busing to disperse students more evenly across the district, relocate some services and re-draw boundaries to cut down on enrollment. PSD currently limits enrollment from outside the district - known as school choice enrollment - and may limit it further if both measures fail.

Here’s how Poudre would spend the money:

  • $313 million for new construction, constituting the largest share of the bond proposal. This would build new schools on Prospect Road, east of Interstate 25, and in the Wellington area. Zachary Elementary School would also get a new addition. PSD Global Academy would also get a new athletic complex, and the district’s North Terminal would get a new transportation maintenance facility.
  • $40 million would go towards facilities and maintenance. Of that, $28 million would address critical maintenance needs.
  • $8 million for operating costs of the new schools, as well as new classroom equipment and technology.

Learn more here.

Weld RE-4 School District

The school district serving Windsor and Severance will ask voters for a $104.8 million bond sale and a $3.6 million mill levy override. It’s been nearly ten years since Weld RE-4 asked voters for cash. This year’s proposal is estimated by the district to cost homeowners $6 a month per $100,000 of property value. Zillow estimates the median home value in Windsor to be $342,600, while the number is lower for Severance at about $304,900. That means homeowners are looking at more than $200 in additional property taxes annually if both measures pass.

Here’s what that would buy for the district:

  • $30 million for major renovations at Windsor High School.
  • $55.7 million for a new high school.
  • $12.5 million for facility improvements and modernization.

Learn more here.

Greeley-Evans School District 6

Greeley-Evans is the only district out of the bunch that isn’t buckling under the weight of too many students. Hence the meager proposal of a $12 million mill levy override. However, the district still faces many of the same issues as its neighbors: aging buildings, outdated technology and low salaries for teachers.

The district estimates the mill levy override will cost $13.72 per month for a home valued at $200,000. That’s just below the median home price for Greeley, which is at about $211,400, according to Zillow. On average, homeowners would be paying less than $200 a year in additional taxes.

Here’s how the district would spend the money:

  • $2 million for security upgrades, including a security camera system. Some of this money will also pay for maintenance and repairs.
  • $4.2 million for classroom tech upgrades and bolstered educational programs like expanded summer school and college classes to be taught in high schools.
  • $3 million for personnel, $1 million of which will go towards ensuring teacher salaries are competitive.
  • $2.8 million for charter schools within the district to even out per-pupil spending. Each charter school may use the money differently, depending on individual needs.

Learn more here.

Ann Marie Awad's journalistic career has seen her zigzag around the United States, finally landing on Colorado. Before she trekked to this neck of the woods, she was a reporter and Morning Edition host for WRKF in Baton Rouge, Louisiana's capitol. In a former life, she was a reporter in New York City. Originally, she's from Buffalo, so she'll be the judge of whether or not your chicken wings are up to snuff, thank you very much.
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