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Colorado Springs school district rallies the troops to promote funding measure

October 7, 2017 Updated: October 7, 2017 at 8:04 pm
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Colorado Springs School District 11 employee Jeff Palmer delivers yard signs in the Patty Jewett neighborhood Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017, encouraging voters to pass the ballot issue 3E mill levy override in November. Palmer and other employees volunteered after school to deliver signs and visit voters door-to-door. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Palmer High School junior Maya Berry has been attending school in Colorado Springs District 11 since fifth grade.

"I'd like to see some changes that would help our schools," she said. "Teachers need more resources. We need smaller classes. We need to get more kids graduated. Our buildings need to be fixed."

Although she's not yet old enough to vote, 16-year-old Maya is volunteering her time after school to knock on doors in neighborhoods, make phone calls, post on social media, put up yard signs and recruit other students to join her in getting the word out about D-11's November ballot proposal.

"This will affect us in the moment and in the future," Maya said. "It will benefit everyone."

The area's oldest and largest school district is seeking a $42 million yearly property tax increase to hire more school counselors, nurses, psychologists and social workers; increase employees' salaries; repair buildings; improve technology and security at schools; reduce bond debt, and, under a new law, give a share to charter schools.

The campaign has rallied all the troops - students, parents, teachers and staff, retirees and even people from other school districts - to call for voter support.

There are nearly 140,900 active registered voters in D-11, according to the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder's Office.

"It's something I want to do because it's something we really need," said Jeff Palmer, the district's facilities coordinator, who recently joined other employees after work to set signs in yards.

Palmer, a D-11 graduate himself, said through his job he well knows the status of buildings and the need for repairs.

"The infrastructure is in poor condition," he said. "And we really need to upgrade our technology. This is way important. We're past due."

The year 2000 was the last time D-11 voters agreed to a property tax increase.

District leaders have watched other local school districts pass similar ballot initiatives in recent years.

The region's second largest district, Academy D-20, and third largest, Falcon D-49, won approval for financing measures last year. Also in 2016, Woodland Park RE-2 voters agreed to an unusual city sales tax increase to benefit schools.

Manitou Springs D-14 succeeded with a bond issue and tax increase in 2015. Cheyenne Mountain D-12, Falcon D-49 and Edison 54-JT won financing issues in 2014.

"I'm doing anything I can," said D-11 parent Abbi Kelly, who has twin kindergartners. "My kids are just starting school, so this is something that will affect them for the next 12 years."

The health care worker has been a Colorado Springs resident since 2009 and said one drawback is that the community doesn't support its schools enough.

"I respect teachers and want to make sure they get the money they deserve and my kids get the best teachers and have the best technology," Kelly said.

Jessica Gladney has lived in D-11 boundaries for 11 years, but her children attend schools in Academy D-20, a more affluent district, because it's more convenient with her husband working at the Air Force Academy.

When the family moved from Florida to Colorado Springs, Gladney said people told them to buy a home in Academy D-20 boundaries.

"You see and hear that everywhere," she said. "I'm volunteering because I'd like D-11 to become the district people say that about. I want to ensure we have the best resources for our kids, and translate that into having the best schools."

D-11 voters rejected two financing measures last year - but not by much. A property tax increase was 2,075 votes shy of passing, with 49 percent saying yes. A bond authorization failed with a margin of 48 percent in favor, 52 percent opposed.

The district analyzed and reworked its bid for local dollars to address what it says amounts to dire needs, due to state cuts to education funding.

From 2009 to 2018, D-11 will have lost nearly $237.6 million in state funding due to lawmakers reshuffling education dollars, which officials say has negatively impacted salaries, building maintenance, classroom resources and other areas of operations.

Like the majority of voters in D-11, Beth Lindquist doesn't have kids in school. The retiree moved from Missouri to Colorado Springs three years ago.

After having studied the pros and cons, Lindquist said she's convinced the appeal is worthwhile.

"It's important for economic development and property values to have healthy and well-equipped schools," she said. "It's a big district in the core of the city, and I think they will use the money well."

The proposal would cost homeowners an estimated $3.75 per month per $100,000 of home value, and an oversight committee would ensure the funds are spent as proposed.

Lindquist said she's on a fixed income, and the amount seems reasonable.

"It's pretty modest," she said.

Not everyone is sold on the idea, including anti-tax activist and author of Colorado's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights Douglas Bruce. Bruce filed a complaint last month with the Secretary of State's Office alleging D-11 used taxpayer dollars to promote the tax initiative with a postcard. D-11 officials said the postcard cost $312.49 and was printed as informational, not promotional material before the school board decided to put the issue on the ballot.

The district has asked for a hearing on the complaint to be delayed, which Bruce also contests.

Monroe Elementary School teacher Leslie Miller said the ballot measure is "near and dear" to her heart, since the money would directly benefit her classroom. She teaches English as a Second Language to kindergarten through fifth grade students.

"It will bring in more resources for me to use with my students," she said, "and help us retain quality teachers, instead of having them look outside the district for higher pay and benefits."

Miller said she was disappointed when D-11's funding initiatives didn't pass last year.

"The educator in me wants to educate the public about the wonderful things this mill levy override will do," she said. "I hope the community can see the state is not providing us with all the revenue we need to provide the highest-quality instruction."

Palmer High School junior Isaiah Trujillo also is hitting the campaign trail.

"It's not only important for me, but also for the next generation of students," he said.

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