Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Lewis-Palmer D-38 eyes tax increase election

By Carol McGraw Published: July 9, 2013

Lewis-Palmer School District 38 may ask the Monument community to open its pocketbooks to help keep its schools from slipping off the top of the educational heap.

The district, which serves about 5,000 students and 800 charter school enrollees, is contemplating requesting voters to approve a $4.5 million mill levy override for the general election in November.

The mill levy would address: adequate number of teachers through recruiting, compensation and professional development; optimal class sizes, particularly at the elementary level; safety protection; restore losses in programs in education interventions and advanced placement; update technology; charter school support and home school enrichment.

The district is already on the ballot because two board seats are up. The board has until September to decide whether to move forward with the tax hike measure.

A school mill levy is a property tax based on assessments, and would help fund day-to-day school operating expenses.

A survey a year ago found that the community was "pretty soft" on the tax idea, noted D-38 board President Jeff Ferguson. But officials believe that attitude is changing as voters get to know the district's needs better.

"We've been telling our story, which we need to do whether or not there is a ballot initiative," Ferguson said. "A key role of the school board is to present what we think the educational needs are to have excellent schools." He added that traditionally, the community has demanded top-notch education.

D-38 Superintendent John Borman has been hitting the chicken dinner circuit to explain why the money is needed and what changes the district has made in how it does business.

Since last year, he has talked to more than 50 organizations, from parent groups to civic and business groups to school employees. Part of the effort has been to change the perception that the district has communications and transparency issues.

Years ago some district spending was questioned and confidence eroded, a presentation on the district web site noted. The district has since worked hard to earn renewed trust.

One controversy several years ago under different leadership, was that an administrator's contract was bought out after only six months, Borman said. There was also a dispute over land use in building a new high school.

The mill levy override is a "temporary answer" to the district's financial problem, Ferguson said, but would help retain and retrieve academic programs.

In spite of belt-tightening, the district has had to make budget reductions of about $11 million. However, $4.5 million is the most debt the district can ask for under state regulations. D-38 also has a backlog of $30 million worth of capital improvements.

The district, like others over the past few years, has suffered in light of state budget cuts to education. D-38's per-pupil funding from the state is $6,311 for the 2013 school year. That is 15.5 percent or $5.7 million a year below where they should have been funded if the recession had not hit the state budget beginning in 2008, notes Cheryl Wangeman, chief financial officer.

The district has a general fund budget of about $44 million.

The community has supported D-38 in the past, including a $4 million mill levy override in 1999, and in 2006 a $57 million bond issue to build Palmer Ridge High School, and to make improvements at Lewis-Palmer High School.

Over the past several years, the district has reduced central administrative staff by 28 percent and cut 38 teachers and support staff. Teachers have received only one pay increase, 2.2 percent, since 2008, which makes hiring top educators more difficult, administrators say. The classroom teacher-student ratio has risen. At the same time state employee pension costs have increased by $250,000 a year, health costs about $200,000 a year, and utilities have gone up.

The district is regularly at the top in various education indicators statewide, including ranking highest among traditional schools for preparing students for higher education. It also receives the state's top "accredited with distinction" designation, and places in the top tier on state academic assessment tests, and in the top 10 percent of ACT college entrance exams.

"I'm not saying that the sky is falling," Ferguson said. "But it's like not changing the oil in the car on a regular basis. You save money, but then you have to replace the engine."

He said that though the district is still academically excellent it is beginning to lose ground because of the financial cuts.

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Contact Carol McGraw: 636-0371 Twitter @mcgrawatgazette Facebook Carol McGraw

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