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Back at it: Colorado Springs' largest school district to try again for voter-approved funding

June 11, 2017 Updated: June 12, 2017 at 6:22 am
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Colorado Springs School District 11 Administration Building (Image via Google Maps)

A generation has passed since voters in the area's largest and oldest public school district agreed to raise property taxes to fund educational projects.

"It's time," said Anthony Carlson, campaign manager for Friends of D-11, a group that's promoting a new ballot proposal for Colorado Springs School District 11.

"It's important for our community and our kids that we're giving them resources to succeed."

The district's seven-member board will vote at Wednesday's regular meeting whether to issue an intent to place a $42 million financing measure on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Most incoming high school seniors were born in the year the last mill levy override won approval from voters, in November 2000.

Without taking much of a breather, supporters analyzed what went wrong seven months ago, when voters rejected both a $32.6 million mill levy override and a $235 million bond debt authorization D-11 put forth to improve buildings and instruction.

The override failed by a narrow margin, 51 percent against and 49 percent in favor. The bond was defeated with 52 percent in opposition.

"The consensus was the bond was too expensive, but the mill levy was very close," said Chief Financial Officer Glenn Gustafson.

Feedback included people not knowing about the appeal until they received their ballots, not understanding the meat of the proposals and mistakenly thinking that D-11 receives money from sales of recreational marijuana, which it does not. Marijuana revenue earmarked for schools has primarily benefited construction projects in rural districts.

Some people said D-11's closure of some schools in recent years under a restructuring plan influenced their vote.

Based on comments they heard, D-11 leaders are revamping their pitch.

The expected ballot question, which the board won't finalize until August, will call for a $42 million mill levy override.

If approved, the additional tax collections would pay for school building maintenance, teacher and support staff compensation, adding counselors, nurses and social workers, reducing class sizes, enhancing technology, and giving charter schools a fair share of the money, as per a new state law.

That's calculated to cost homeowners around $3.75 a month per $100,000 of property value.

The money is desperately needed, according to supporters, who watched the region's second largest school district, Academy D-20, and third largest, Falcon D-49, pass funding measures last November.

"Surrounding districts are newer, and District 11 is the heart of Colorado Springs. It runs through our downtown corridor and contributes to the economic vitality," said campaign strategist Lauren Hug, who also is a parent of D-11 students.

Like other public school districts, D-11 has been adversely impacted by state-level cuts to education.

"The state has reduced our funding by $1,000 per pupil," Gustafson said, "and we continue to struggle."

Gustafson said the money would "make up for the funding we lost from the state and take us to the next level."

Carlson calls the proposal "palatable."

Hug agrees.

"It's going to fund both infrastructure needs and taking care of educators and students," Hug said. "We've done a lot of investment in downtown Colorado Springs, and a heavy component of downtown vibrancy is having up-to-date school buildings and resources, and good teachers."

Parent Rhonda Heschel, who's heading a political group called Parents of D-11, said it's essential that the community backs neighborhood schools.

"My son will attend Holmes Middle School this fall, and last year the heating system crashed and they had to send kids home," she said. "There's not a lot of money for keeping buildings maintained, and we shouldn't have to wait until something breaks until we get it fixed."

About 80 percent of voters in D-11 boundaries do not have children in school, said Gustafson, which has contributed to the challenge of gaining funding approval.

"Even if you don't have kids in school, everybody wants their neighborhood school to be successful because it's a vital part of their community and they want an attractive, well-maintained school in the neighborhood," Gustafson said.

Early response from individuals, businesses and organizations has been positive, Carlson said.

"People understand the importance of making sure our schools are strong and the city continues to be attractive for economic development," he said.

While advocates say campaign development is still in the initial stages, the movement received a $25,000 donation in May from a new nonprofit organization, the Lane Institute for Urban Education and Leadership.

Chief Executive Officer Zachary McComsey said the organization's benefactor, Margot Lane, whose family operated several Pepsi-Cola franchises, "decided more leadership and investment needed to be made in District 11," after the failure of last year's proposals.

"We are doing this because of how important it is to us that the largest school district in Colorado Springs, and the downtown district of Colorado Springs, grows and prospers for a long time to come," McComsey said.

The Lane Institute for Urban Education and Leadership is a 501c4that can participate in issue campaigns, McComsey added. The organization will be focusing on supporting education advocacy, policy and leadership issues in the community.

Heschel said parents are realizing that state funding is inadequate.

"We have to raise that money locally because right now our teachers are paid below the market level," she said. "We want to keep our teachers in D-11."

Supporters are hoping for a repeat performance of 2000. On the heels of voters defeating a mill levy override in November 1999, a year later, a different mill levy override won approval.

"This one is going to be more straightforward for voters," Heschel said. "I encourage voters to remember that good neighborhood schools increase property values, and we all benefit from strong schools because our children are our future."

For more information, including a tax calculator, go to www.d11.org/mlo.

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