Lewis-Palmer district to seek $4.5 million tax hike in November

By Carol McGraw Published: July 26, 2013 | 8:35 pm 0

The Lewis-Palmer School District 38 board voted Friday to ask the Monument community to pass a $4.5 million tax increase in November.

The vote was 3-0, with John Mann and Rob Pike absent because of travel.

Board members, in remarks before the vote, emphasized that the community has traditionally demanded a top-notch education and it is feared that state budget cuts the past few years threatens that quality. While state funding is stable this year, there are no promises for the future, and D-38, like others, has not caught up financially.

"We have been talking about erosion for four or five years. It's at a point we need to take action and control our funding, use local money to help support schools," said Board President Jeff Ferguson. "Is this a good time? I have no idea. Last year? Next year? We just know that we need the services now. We need to do right by the kids."

A school mill levy is a property tax based on assessments and an increase would help fund day-to-day school operating expenses. If voters approve a mill levy override, the additional mill levy would not exceed 10.5 mills, meaning the cost to a taxpayer with a $300,000 home would be less than $300 a year under current tax rates, officials said.

The district is also will two board seats on the November ballot.

The tax increase would address: adequate number of teachers through recruiting; pay and professional development; optimal class sizes; safety and security; restoration of losses in education interventions and advanced placement programs; updating technology, and expanding science, technology, engineering and math education as well as the arts.

D-38 has made budget reductions of about $11 million in the past several years. But $4.5 million is the most that D-38 can seek for operational expenses under state regulations. If the increase is approved, the board would determine each year how much of that would be needed. The district also has a backlog of $30 million in capital improvements that mill levies cannot legally address.

Board member Mark Pfoff said that the past several years have been it by "a perfect storm" of state budget cuts and increased costs of doing business, including higher costs in fuel, utilities, health and PERA pension benefits. "We can tell by looking at data that we are slipping a bit academically. We aren't collapsing, we still offer an excellent education, but it is because teachers and parents have made extraordinary efforts that aren't sustainable," Pfoff said.

The district serves about 5,000 students and 800 charter school enrollees.

D-38 is consistently at the top of various education indictors statewide, including ranking highest among traditional schools for preparing students for higher education. More than 85 percent of its students go on to higher education. The district also consistently 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.

Superintendent John Borman noted that the academic success is due in part to older kids going through the system in better financial times when classrooms were smaller and teaching staff larger, and more special programs were available.

"We are moving down slightly, We have to stem the tide now for all the students coming up."

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 it should have been funded if the recession had not hit the state budget beginning in 2008, noted Cheryl Wangeman, D-38 chief financial officer. The district has a general fund budget of about $44 million.

The district eliminated 34 teaching positions and additional staff. High school teachers have more classes and see 18 percent more students. In high and middle school, class sizes jumped to 24 this past year compared to 19 in 2005.

In elementary school, where the district has tried to hold the line, the class size increased to 23 from 20.

Over the past several years, the district has reduced central administrative staff by 28 percent. Teachers have received one pay increase, 2.2 percent, since 2008, which makes hiring top educators more difficult, administrators say. At the same time, state employee pension costs have increased by $250,000 a year, health costs are up about $200,000 a year and utility costs have gone up.

When deep cuts hit, citizens committees were formed to suggest additional ways to save on energy and other items.

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

While a survey a year ago found that the community was "pretty soft" on the tax idea, that attitude is changing because voters are getting to know the district's needs better, officials say.

Borman has talked to more than 50 local organizations. "We've been telling our story, which we need to do whether or not there is a ballot initiative," Ferguson said recently.

Part of the effort has been to change the perception that the district has communications and transparency issues. In the past, some district spending was questioned and there was a dispute over land when the new high school was considered and confidence eroded.

The district has worked hard to earn renewed trust.

Heather Buchman, head of Now's The Time, a community group supporting a mill levy override, said in an interview that, she believes the measure will pass. She said the group's outreach has shown community support. "The tide is turning. People are saying the district is trustworthy and that it is time to move on and invest more in our kids."

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

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