Denver schools declare early victory

Updated at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday

Denver school leaders aren’t going to waste too much time celebrating voter approval of a bond issue and property tax measure that will bring a record $515 million into district coffers.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg talked Tuesday night with reporters about the district’s successful passage of a $466 million bond issue and a $49 million operating tax increase. Photo / Joe Mahoney (RJ Sangosti/Denver Post)

Wednesday, school board President Mary Seawell said work would begin soon to set up the two oversight committees charged with evaluating projects and programs to be funded via the $466 million bond issue and $49 million operating tax increase.

Seawell said each board member will be asked to come up with candidates for the committees, as will Superintendent Tom Boasberg, and a notice will be put out to the community at large to gauge interest.

The school board will then hash out names in a work session. Under language already approved by the board, consensus must be reached on the committee make-up. With a board that often splits 4-3 on key votes, consensus could take some time.

“The plan is to put applications out and post them and see who’s interested,” Seawell said.

Seawell said the board would likely vote on the committee memberships at its regular Dec. 20 meeting. Michael Kiley, a DPS parent and critic of the bond, has said he hoped a range of opinions would be reflected on each oversight committee.

Kiley added that he believed the bond would fund some important projects and “for that, I’m happy.”  Seawell said those building projects will be underway soon and shovels could be hitting dirt as early as January.

“We have projects that need to start immediately in order for them to be open and ready,” she said. “It’ll be fast.”

While the economic climate isn’t what it was a few years ago, she said the district can still take advantage of lower construction costs on building projects.

Backers of the two ballot questions celebrated early Tuesday evening. That’s because Superintendent Tom Boasberg, Seawell and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock declared victory in the basement of the Irish Snug on Colfax Avenue in downtown Denver just after the polls closed at 7 p.m.

“This is absolutely tremendous,” Boasberg said. “Every kid in this city wakes up tomorrow morning with a brighter future as a result of these measures.”

Seawell acknowledged the combined $515 million tax package “was a big ask.”

“The voters came through in a big way to say this matters to our city,” she said. “We know now some of the things that really work for education. 3A is going to support those initiatives, 3B makes sure we have the right facilities and schools to do that work in.”

While leaders in the aging urban district said it needed new buildings and boilers and more money for programs to make up for a string of state budget cuts coupled with growing enrollment, the package known as 3A and 3B wasn’t necessarily an easy sell.

For one, voters were still reeling from economic uncertainty, the likes of which made it tough for Colorado districts to convince voters to pony up during the presidential election four years ago. Only half the bond issues placed on Colorado ballots in 2008 passed. But Denver bucked that trend four years ago, with voters approving a then record-setting $454 Denver Public Schools bond measure by 2-to-1 margin. The question was, would they do it again?

For four voters interviewed near the closing hour Tuesday at a downtown polling place, St. John’s Cathedral, the answer was ‘yes.’

Deanne Stokes, 73, said her daughter once taught in Denver Public Schools and she believes “the schools need it.”

She also said she believes district leaders presented a good plan, noting, “I respect our leadership.”

Zach Buckendahl, 20, voted for the two DPS ballot measures even though he knew little about them before he walked into the polling place.

“I think education is really important,” he said, “but it could also be better.”

Another voter, C. Howard Hall, 57, also voted yes on both measures: “It’s like the old cliché, our children are our future.”

This year, two of seven Denver school board members voted against placing the bond issue on the ballot. And one of those board members, Arturo Jimenez, actively campaigned against it – even putting $500 into the No on 3B campaign, although he said he supported the operating tax increase.

All told, the No on 3B campaign drummed up $1,890 in cash contributions.

Together for Denver’s Schools, the campaign committee supporting the ballot measures, had raised $555,188 as of the most recent campaign filing deadline Nov. 2. Individual donors of note included Denver school board members Jeanne Kaplan at $500, Happy Haynes at $300 and Nate Easley at $200 while Boasberg kicked in $1,000.

Kiley, who spoke publicly against the bond issue, pointed out the preliminary margin of approval for the operating increase was larger than that for the bond.

“Even though the pro side put in almost half a million dollars to support these measures, people were still able to differentiate between the two,” he said.

Property tax bills are expected to increase $5 per month or $62 per year for every $100,000 of a home’s value.

Board member Easley called the approval of the ballot measures “a mandate for school reform.”

“The people have spoken,” he said. “I don’t think we need to apologize for school reform anymore.”

Board member Anne Rowe also said, “Denver believes in what we’re doing for kids.”

Meanwhile, board member Haynes said the voting “proves the people of Denver will do what it takes to make our schools the best they can be. It’s not about the politics.”

But Haynes added, “It isn’t a free pass” and the district must now carry through with its spending plans.

The bond issue is expected to provide $230 million for facility maintenance, $119 million to build six new schools and $78 million to renovate and expand existing schools. The operating tax increase is to provide, among other initiatives, $13 million for early childhood education and $11 million for enrichment programs, such as arts, music, physical education.

Critics complained the bond would not funnel enough money into older district neighborhood schools, even as it built a new high school to serve students in the relatively affluent Stapleton development.

Another steady refrain from opponents was that the district shouldn’t absorb any more debt. Question 3B asked whether DPS’s debt should be increased by $466 million, with a maximum repayment cost of $738 million.

Critics lumped the district’s pension debt with debt that would be accrued by the district if the bond passed. But school officials said the 2012 bond was a separate matter and would be guaranteed – by taxpayers.

“Under state law, voters must approve the full amount of repayment before you can even issue the bonds,” Boasberg said.

Approval of the operating tax increase also means the first cost-of-living increase for Denver teachers in years under an agreement reached in June between DPS and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. Denver teachers are slated to receive a 1 percent cost-of-living raise retroactive to Sept. 1.

The raise isn’t listed among the tax projects; instead, district leaders say it could be funded because the ballot measure will free up general fund dollars that would have gone to other needs.