The pro and con contingents are drawing up battles lines over the proposed property-tax increase for Jeffco schools on the November ballot.
Opponents say the tax increase would not fully address the district’s budget issues or guarantee improved student performance, and that the district can find other places to cut the budget. Proponents counter that the increase would help a district ravaged by budget cuts over the past several years and help keep residential property values in the county high by maintaining quality schools.
County residents will vote on a mill-levy increase that would generate $39 million for the district’s operating fund and a bond issue that would allow the district to borrow $99 million to use for building maintenance.
The measures, known as 3A and 3B, will be voted on separately on Nov. 6. If both are approved, they would increase property taxes on a $250,000 home by about $126 a year. The school district is paying off a bond borrowed in 1992 that will equate to $90 in property-tax savings for that same household, so the net impact would be approximately $36 per year.
The school district has cut $63 million from the budget over the last three years, and it has chopped another $15 million from the 2012-13 budget. It will face another $43 million in cuts for 2013-14, projecting that it will need to cut 600 jobs.
Opponents of the measures say increased spending does not guarantee improved student performance, and that the money brought in from the taxes wouldn’t come close to covering projected budget cuts.
While the district has made program and personnel cuts over the last three years, total general fund spending has actually continued to increase faster than inflation, said Sheila Atwell, executive director of the nonprofit Jeffco Students First.
In the 2004-05 school year, general fund spending was $540 million. In 2007-08, it was $625 million, and in 2010-11, $639 million, according to the district’s comprehensive annual financial reports.
The district’s chief financial officer, Lorie Gillis, said planned spending for 2012-13 is $64 million lower than actual expenditures in 2009-10.
“Expenditures did increase for a few years after 2005,” Gillis wrote in an e-mail. “2005 was seven years ago; costs and mandates have increased over the past seven years.”
Gillis said that spending increased from 2005 to 2010 because of a property-tax increase that voters passed in November 2004. That money was spent from 2004 to 2008 to allow the district’s reserves to build up.
Atwell also said student enrollment has declined slightly, and Jeffco students’ test scores haven’t changed much, although the district generally has better standardized test scores than the state average. In the 2010-11 school year, the state average ACT score was 21.1. Jeffco’s was 21.6.
“Sure, Jeffco’s scores relative to the state’s are better. I would say the state’s scores aren’t a high enough bar,” Atwell said. “It’s not additional spending that’s helping student achievement.”
Atwell also said the tax increases won’t bridge the budget gap.
“It’s just plugging a hole,” Atwell said. “There’s no money in it for teacher raises or for performance pay.”
The projected 2013-14 budget does not include raises for teachers.
Atwell said the district should try harder to balance the budget without cutting from classroom services and without asking for more taxpayer money.
“I’m just thinking they could have cut in other areas. … When we say we’re cutting to the bone, I just haven’t seen that to be true,” Atwell said. “There are still inefficiencies, and … you’re keeping expensive teachers that aren’t effective.”
Atwell said the district would save money if it reformed the way it pays teachers, with higher entry-level pay and more attention paid to classroom performance.
Atwell said that by restructuring pay based on performance, the district would be able to cut costs by weeding out teachers who are highly paid only because of their tenure, not because of their effectiveness.
“It’s about accountability on both sides,” Atwell said.
Atwell also suggested the district could look at reducing unused classroom space in facilities or closing some facilities all together as a cost-saving measure.
In January 2010, the school board closed one school, Arvada’s Russell Elementary.
The board had planned to address the budget shortfall by closing buildings and formed a resident-based Facilities Usage Committee to recommend schools for closure.
The list of 50 was narrowed to 12, then to four and finally to the closure of Russell.
In January 2011, the board again postponed any decisions to close schools.
However, in May, the district decided to move several preschools into elementary schools to save space and facility costs. The move is expected to save about $20,000 per year.
For more information about Jeffco Students First, visit www.jeffcostudentsfirst.org.
Proponents of the tax increases say they are necessary to compensate for a continuing decline in education funding from the state.
“We have seen state funding decrease significantly in the last three years,” said Kelly Johnson, co-chair for the campaign committee Citizens for Jeffco Schools. “This is a state problem, but Jeffco can’t wait for the state to fix it.”
State funding to the district has dropped from $562 million in the 2009-10 school year, or $7,070 per student, to $509 million in 2012-13, or $6,309 per student, district spokeswoman Lynn Setzer said.
Johnson, whose organization requested the tax measures, said she knows the $39 million increase in general-fund revenue wouldn’t cover the $43 million in budget cuts next year. But it’s as much as her group thought reasonable to ask of voters in a distressed economy.
“We believe that $39 million is an amount that Jeffco taxpayers and Jeffco voters will support,” Johnson said. “We felt we had to strike a balance between what the district needs and what taxpayers can pay. … It’s just so reasonable. It’s so modest.”
Johnson said the increased revenue would help stave off at least some of the $43 million in cuts projected for 2013-14, including teacher-librarian positions, elementary school music programs and other elective classes.
“Money is not the answer. It’s money spent in the right places,” Johnson said. “I believe that Jeffco is spending money in the right places. … This is the right investment.”
As for student achievement, Johnson pointed to recent news that Jeffco has the third-highest graduation rate of the 50 largest U.S. school districts, according to Education Week’s Diplomas Count report.
“Jeffco is an excellent, excellent school district,” Johnson said.
Citizens for Jeffco Schools’ campaign will likely face disinterest or opposition from the 70 percent of Jeffco residents who have no direct connection to the schools. Johnson said one talking point will be property values.
“We know that our schools really do affect home values,” she said. “(Those people) need to understand that this does affect them, even though they don’t have a student in the walls of one of our schools.”
Johnson said she believes voters who reject the measures will be residents who vote against all tax hikes, or who don’t have all the facts.
“If you do all your research, you’ll see that this matters to you,” Johnson said.
For more information about Citizens for Jeffco Schools, visit www.support jeffcoschools.com.
The possible tax decrease
If voters don’t approve the measures, property taxes may decrease $90 per year for the owner of a $250,000, since a bond issued in 1992 is set to retire in December 2012.
According to Steve Bell, the district’s chief operating officer, however, taxpayers are not necessarily guaranteed the tax decrease in 2013.
The school board could opt not to stop collecting the portion for the previous bond, because the money still can be used only to pay off existing debt. It cannot be used to start new projects, Bell said.
Historically, the district typically has decreased taxes once a bond has been paid off, Bell said.
Bonds are issued by government entities such as school boards to pay for building maintenance and improvements, or to construct new buildings, and they are repaid through property taxes. Bonds cannot be used to pay for district operating costs.
Pondering the PERA question
The Public Employees’ Retirement Association is a retirement fund that public workers — including school district staff — pay into instead of Social Security. All Colorado school districts pay into the fund, and the Colorado legislature mandates the amount each employer must pay, and the amount their employees pay.
Jeffco Students First executive director Sheila Atwell said the $20 million extra that Jeffco Public Schools must pay into PERA in 2013-14 will eat up a large chunk of the $39 million the tax increase would bring in.
Atwell said the district should try to negotiate to ask its employees to shoulder more of the contribution. But to do this, the district would have to go to the legislature and negotiate there, according to Katie Kaufmanis, spokeswoman for PERA.
District officials have said that projected PERA costs are budgeted several years in advance. That means the $20 million is already accounted in the budget when the district says it will need to make $43 million in cuts.
“To me, that’s not a fair situation, because that means they’re taking it off the negotiating table,” Atwell said.
Kelly Johnson with Citizens for Jeffco Schools said that because the contribution levels are already set, it’s not relevant in a discussion about the tax measures.
“It’s really … disrespectful to make it sound like this money is earmarked for PERA,” she said.
Contact Gabrielle Porter at Gabrielle@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1043. Check www.HighTimberTimes.com for updates.