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Widefield School District 3 planning to bring two financing measures to November ballot

June 13, 2017 Updated: June 14, 2017 at 8:29 am
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Third-grade teacher Jodie Collins helps Sara Tutton with her class work Tuesday, May 8, 2012, at Webster Elementary. The third garders at the Widefield school scored 88.7 percent proficient or higher in reading on the TCAP test, an 18 point increase over last year's score. Photo by Christian Murdock, The Gazette.

Schools used to just be about education, but now competition is a big factor. Widefield School District 3 officials plan to seek both a property tax increase and a bond debt authorization to stay in the game and end a budgetary run in the red.

"We have charter schools, private schools, neighborhood schools, and if we as a community don't step up, it makes it very difficult to compete," said Chief Financial Officer Terry Kimber.

The district serves just over 9,000 students in the communities of Widefield and Security, and part of the city of Fountain.

Over the summer, the board will work on finalizing a $40.5 million bond proposal and a $3.5 million mill levy override for the Nov. 7 ballot.

The initiatives are estimated to cost property owners between $10 and $15 per month, per $100,000 of assessed value.

"We're one of those highly involved communities that looks out for everyone," said Marc Deutsch, chairman of a parent group called WIN, the Widefield Information Network. "We see the need for growth and restoration of our buildings and want to make sure our salaries are competitive to bring in good teachers and maintain the high level of education for our students."

It's been 16 years since D-3 asked voters for a property tax increase and 22 years for a bond measure.

"I think that's a pretty substantial track record to show we're good stewards of taxpayers' money," said Superintendent Scott Campbell.

If approved, the bond would build a preschool-through-eighth-grade school in Lorson Ranch. The growing residential development sits in the eastern section of the district, which forms a letter "J" around the area of the Colorado Springs Airport.

Thousands of new homes are springing up in the subdivision and straining D-3 schools, Campbell said, with most at or near capacity.

"We have 1,400 students in portable classrooms throughout the district," he said.

The problem with that is "while we've invested in safety and security, it always make you a little nervous when you have to give kids a pass to go out (of the building) and use the restroom."

The bond also would fund improvements to existing schools - eight elementary, an elementary charter, three junior highs, two traditional high schools and one alternative high school.

"All but three of our buildings were built in the '50s, '60s or '70s," Campbell said, "and we have a significant amount of deferred maintenance we need to address."

Installing new roofs and cameras for security, upgrading electrical systems, repairing furniture and renovating auditoriums are among the desired refurbishments.

As is the case with other public school districts, D-3 has seen a 12 percent cut in state funding in recent years, for a total of $62 million, Campbell said.

The district's annual budget of $70 million has carried a deficit for six years, Kimber said. The board is considering a budget that's nearly $1 million in the red for the coming school year.

D-3 is now the fifth lowest-funded school district out of 178 statewide, Kimber added.

Up to 88 percent of D-3's budget comes from state funding, Campbell said. Grants supplement revenue, along with $600,000-$700,000 yearly in military impact funds. About one-quarter of students enrolled in D-3 are from military families. The property tax increase would help offset state funding losses from recessionary cutbacks and Colorado tax limitations, and help the district move forward with enhancements in classrooms, instruction and staff compensation, according to officials.

Priorities include sustaining and growing robotics and coding at the elementary level and the new cybersecurity program for high school students, and Project Lead the Way, a project-based STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum, Campbell said.

The district also paired up last year with the rural district of Peyton 23-JT to build a national training center for manufacturing and construction trades. The center is being built south of the Colorado Springs Airport and is scheduled to open in August.

"We've been aggressive in seeking grants and offer a number of things at no cost to parents," Campbell said. "But we can't continue for much longer without making some cuts that would touch kids."

WIN, the parent-led political group, will host an awareness walk. With many senior residents, Deutsch said it's important for people to realize that strong schools create strong neighborhoods.

"That's something a lot of people don't understand: that this not only also benefits the district but homeowners as well," Deutsch said. "It helps improve property values and our area's growth."

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