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Community effort led to ballot victory for Colorado Springs' largest school district

November 11, 2017 Updated: November 13, 2017 at 1:40 pm
Caption +
Dr. Nicholas Gledich, the superintendent of District 11, left, takes a photo of the countdown screen as Lauren Hugm right countdown from five before the results were to be posted as candidates and others celebrate the passing of 3E on the voting ballot at SoccerHaus on Tuesday November 7, 2017 in Colorado Springs. Voters who approved the 3E ballot measures to significantly increase funding for K-12 schools in the D-11 schools. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).

What made the difference between  November 2016's election defeat and last week's voter approval for Colorado Springs School District 11?

"The community effort," answers Friends of D-11 campaign manager Anthony Carlson.

There's no doubt about it, he said.

The numbers back it up.

More than 500 volunteers knocked on 40,000 doors and made 50,000 phone calls to urge voters to support a $42 million mill levy override, or property tax increase. The question appeared as Issue 3E on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Teachers and other district employees, parents, students and even people who don't live in D-11 volunteered their time during the campaign.

"People stepped up and by sheer force of will made sure everybody had a chance to talk about it," Carlson said.

And more than 600 individuals contributed to promote the campaign, from small $20 donations to the largest sum - $414,000 in financial backing from the Lane Institute. The educational organization was founded earlier this year by the late philanthropist Margot Lane, who said she saw the need for local funding for D-11 and wanted to see its schools strengthened.

"We did a good job of telling the story of the district - how long it's been (17 years since the last property tax increase for schools) and how it isn't an investment in a brick-and-mortar institution, but in the future of our kids," Carlson said. "I think that helped people understand."

And, giving credit to the 143,400 D-11 residents who received ballots - up to 85 percent of whom don't have children or grandchildren in D-11 schools - this time around they were receptive to understanding.

Strong schools are necessary to build strong neighborhoods, said Pat Doyle, a board member of the Old North End Neighborhood Association, who supported the initiative.

"When we were in public school, retirees supported us with their taxes; now it's our turn," she said. "It's called community."

Student poverty rate has doubled

D-11 is the oldest public school district in the area, covering downtown and its mature tentacles. It's still the largest in the Pikes Peak region, with about 27,800 students. But enrollment has been shrinking for more than 15 years, unlike districts to the north and east, which have new housing developments and increasing enrollment.

D-11 also has the area's highest rate of students who "choice" into schools outside of district boundaries - some 5,000 students each year.

At the same time, student poverty has doubled since the last property tax increase passed. District-wide, 60 percent of students qualify for free or reduced meals; it was 30 percent in 2000.

Officials have argued that the district hasn't been able to be competitive because the state has decreased its funding by $1,000 per student since 2009.

That, leadership said, has caused a critical need for fixing and renovating buildings, increasing staff salary, improving technology, and hiring more teachers, mental health workers and security officers - which the additional revenue from property taxes will address.

"D-11 is the 10th largest district in Colorado by enrollment and the 20th for teacher pay - ranking last among the state's top 20 largest districts," Carlson said.

The ballot measure will raise teacher pay to "the middle of the pack," he said.

"That allows the district to compete for teachers and make sure they're not hired away."

Here's the election outcome take from former D-11 board member Jan Tanner:

"It's not going to fix all our needs, but it certainly will address our most pressing ones."

After launching a long-range planning process, D-11 tried for both a property tax increase and a bond authorization in the November 2016 election. Both failed - but by small margins.

"They went back and asked voters why those didn't pass, what they thought was unacceptable in the plan, and they made adjustments," Tanner said. "Voters thought they were asking for too much money, so they changed it and asked again."

Like other supporters, Tanner plunked down a bright orange pro-3E sign in her yard.

A neighbor asked her about it.

"She said retired folks don't always see the benefit," Tanner said. "After I talked to her about it, she asked me for a sign for her yard."

Dean Tollefson, who has lived in D-11 for nearly 30 years and had "a batch of grandchildren" educated in the district, said he's "delighted that the people see the importance of their schools."

That hasn't always been the case in Colorado Springs, the birthplace of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, he noted. Colorado voters adopted the constitutional amendment in 1992 to restrict government revenues at the state, local and school levels.

But in recent years, local voters have backed school financing measures.

Four of five local school districts gained approval on last week's ballot.

The region's second largest district, Academy D-20, the third largest, Falcon D-49, as well as Woodland Park RE-2, all won initiatives last year. Manitou Springs D-14 succeeded with two funding proposals in 2015. Cheyenne Mountain D-12, Falcon D-49 and Edison 54-JT prevailed in 2014.

"One of the primary measures of the quality of a city is the quality of its schools and teachers," Tollefson said. "It has the effect of lifting all of the city."

'Our community cares'

Issue 3E passed with a 57 percent majority.

Parent Vonney Northrop is among the 43 percent of voters who opposed it.

"I really feel like they're asking for a lot money," she said. "When I asked if they would take this money and quit putting out fires but put it into something that prevents them, they couldn't answer that question."

Northrop has one child in D-11 and two others that have gone through D-11 schools.

"If you think your kids already are being taught OK and you don't have a problem with the job they're doing and the pay they're getting, why would you support it?" Northrop said.

Residents who favored the measure said they expect to see results.

D-11 has struggled with academic performance, with two middle schools and one elementary school now on the state's lowest accreditation rating and in need of an intense improvement plan.

And D-11's graduation rate of 70 percent was below last year's state average of 79 percent.

Tollefson said he thinks improvements tied to the infusion of new revenue will be apparent in short time.

"We'll see new teachers. We've lost some good ones," he said.

Tanner said she's confident the money will immediately improve school climate.

"Already, there's a better feeling among staff," she said. "A feeling that our community cares about our schools."

Doyle, a retired D-11 teacher, said outcomes involve many factors, not just money.

"Results include parents, the administration and teachers," she said. "Results include setting high expectations for children and having children's needs drive the classroom.

"The whole culture is a schoolhouse for teaching our children. It takes a group effort."

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