Colorado school districts stung by past defeats return with record number of tax requests

A record 44 Colorado school districts are on the ballot this year asking voters to approve a whopping $4.4 billion in tax measures — many of them returning to the polls hoping to reverse their fortunes after previous disappointments.

Districts that have seen past measures defeated are taking a variety of approaches to try to persuade reluctant voters, including cutting back on what they’re asking for, reducing the tax burden and better communicating their needs in their communities.

For the Adams 12 Five Star School District, that meant only asking for a bond — rather than pairing it with a tax increase known as a mill levy override — even though those funds can only be used for buildings and infrastructure. The district is asking for $350 million, not the half a billion that officials say is needed. But by keeping the amount lower, the bond measure will not raise taxes.

“We have ongoing challenges,” said Chris Gdwoski, superintendent of the Adams 12 Five Star School District which covers Thornton, Broomfield, Federal Heights, Northglenn and Westminster. “We’ve used our money well, but we’re not going to be able to continue to compete much longer.”

In Greeley the school district is also sticking to one request instead of two: a mill levy override request of $12 million. Mill levy overrides allow districts to collect a new property tax that stays in the district. Greeley officials included a sunset for their tax measure request to expire after seven years. It’s not the first time a district has added an expiration date, but it is an uncommon clause in mill levy overrides.

Colorado Votes 2016 | For more coverage on issues and races this election click here.When the Brighton 27J School District passed its bond request last year — the only metro area district to do so in 2015 — district officials also stuck to one request, eliminating the mill levy override that had been included in previous years.

Several districts say they have focused more energy on communicating with the public so voters can understand needs.

The Adams 12 school district invested about $9,800 in a color-coded scorecard that assigned a grade to each district school based on the building’s condition and detailing its maintenance needs. The building scorecards were sent home to the school’s families.

When Brighton passed its 2015 bond, officials said it was in part because the district had finally gotten the message across that schools really were too crowded when they talked about year-long school calendars and started a split schedule where half of students are in school early in the morning and the rest have a later schedule.

“Folks, they don’t like those changes very much,” said Brighton 27J superintendent Chris Fiedler. “Parents became very involved. We had great community support.”

In Mapleton School District, superintendent Charlotte Ciancio said the district this year took a step back from telling voters what they think the district needs, and allowed community members on a task force to lead the efforts by touring schools and determining the needs.

“They actually shaped this ballot measure,” Ciancio said. “Our community seems to have a more concrete grasp on our needs.”

In Adams 12, the district was also able to find an amount that did not require an increase of the property taxes residents already pay. Several factors helped the district craft that bond request, including an increase in the tax base with more houses and businesses in the district, an increase in assessed value, and the fact that the district has paid down a lot of previous debt and refinanced past bonds to get lower interest payments.

Denver Public Schools is also taking advantage of similar factors to request a bond measure that will not raise taxes.

Other districts considered finding an amount that would not involve raising taxes. But for some school districts that amount would fall too short of the need or wasn’t possible while still paying off previous debt.

In Greeley, where no bond or mill levy override has ever been approved, that wasn’t an option.

Theresa Myers, the communications director for Greeley-Evans District 6, said officials there are fielding questions about how school finance works in Colorado and why asking for a property tax increase through a mill levy override is one of a limited set of options for school districts.

Myers said the district, in response to questions from voters, is also preparing a website that will allow anyone to track the spending of the new tax, line by line, to keep the district accountable.

Waiting longer is also not possible, district officials say.

“There’s a real sense of urgency here,” Myers said. “We’ve done a good job applying for grants for things like blended learning, but for overall operational dollars we’re just up against the wall.”

In Englewood, the school district’s bond is competing with another bond for the city’s police station, but district officials and community members decided the schools shouldn’t wait.

“There are so many things on the election this year,” said Vanessa Fritzsche, an Englewood parent and the co-chair of the bond committee. “It’s such a long ballot. It makes it a little bit more competitive. People just need more information.”

Even if this year’s tax measures are successful, districts that have adjusted their requests to ask for smaller amounts may have to go back to the ballots sooner than later.

Adams 12 officials say they may look at another bond measure in about four years. Brighton may look at another measure in six years, “if things continue the way they are,” said Fiedler, the superintendent.

“We still have needs that are unmet,” Fiedler said. “People know we’re projected to continue to grow. No matter where you drive in the district you can hear the hammers. It’s a symptom of the problem with school financing in Colorado. All these districts are out (with bond and tax measures) because the state’s not going to solve these problems for them.”