Air conditioning, school nurses: How Denver could spend extra money from ballot measures if voters agree

Gym teacher Neal Finch cools off at KIPP Denver Collegiate High School in 2018. The school is among those without air conditioning. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Update, Aug. 21, 2020: Denver voters will soon be asked to approve a $795 million bond measure and a $32 million mill levy override. That’s after the Denver school board voted Thursday to put the two tax measures on November’s ballot.

The dollar amounts differ slightly from what the board was considering last month (see story below). Another key difference: Due to an accounting error, the district had miscalculated the number of schools that would get air conditioning if the bond measure passes. It’s now 24 schools, up from a previous estimate of 20 schools.

This school year, 55 of Denver’s more than 150 school buildings don’t have air conditioning. See the full list of the 24 schools slated to get it on page 4 of this district presentation, which also includes other details about the ballot measures.

Original story, July 16, 2020: Air conditioning in 20 additional schools, more school nurses, and a comprehensive high school in Montbello: A committee has recommended Denver Public Schools fund these initiatives and more if voters approve a pair of school tax measures this fall.

It’s not certain the tax measures will appear on November’s ballot. The Denver school board is set to decide next month whether to ask voters to approve an $801 million bond measure and a mill levy override of either $25 million or $50 million.

Approving the bond and the lower mill levy override would not cause taxes to go up, said Jim Carpenter, the chief financial officer for Denver Public Schools. Because property values in Denver have risen, keeping the tax rate flat could generate enough revenue, he said.

However, a $50 million mill levy override could raise property taxes by about 2.6%, assuming property values hold steady, Carpenter said.

In general, bond measures can pay for school construction, while mill levy override funds cover programming. Denver voters have in past years approved similar school tax measures, but the current economic downturn makes the outcome less certain this year.

A 75-person committee narrowed a long list of possible projects to those the district should fund if Denver voters approve the tax measures. The committee considered each project’s impact on students from low-income families, students with disabilities, and students learning English as a second language, and gave higher priority to projects that would benefit them.

According to a committee presentation last month, the bond projects it selected include:

Renovating or rebuilding the Montbello High School campus

This is in response to revived interest in reopening a comprehensive high school in the Montbello neighborhood, which the superintendent has committed to doing. The former Montbello High was replaced 10 years ago with smaller schools.

The funding would go toward either renovating the existing 1980 building or constructing a new school on the site.

Installing air conditioning in 20 schools that lack it

In all, 55 of Denver’s more than 150 school buildings won’t have air conditioning next year. That poses a particular problem in the fall, when outdoor temperatures can reach near 100 degrees. Some teachers and parents are doubly worried this year about the possibility of students and staff having to wear masks to protect against coronavirus in hot classrooms.

Adding air conditioning to 20 school buildings would still leave 35 buildings without it. See the box for a list of the 20 school buildings the committee recommends receive it.

Buying land in the far northeast Gateway neighborhood

This is one of the last remaining neighborhoods in Denver with space to build new homes. Development is progressing, which means the district will likely need new schools there.

Expanding student access to computers and home internet

This will be especially important if rising coronavirus cases cause learning to shift online, as happened this past spring. Lack of internet access and an initial shortage of devices were barriers to some students continuing their education at home. 

School maintenance and upgrades

This would include replacing outdated equipment, as well as upgrading 15 preschool playgrounds, building new middle school science labs, expanding classroom space for career and technical programs, and several other projects.

The committee is recommending the district spend mill levy override money on:

Raises for low-wage workers and other compensation

Teachers and hourly wage workers, including bus drivers, custodians, and teacher’s aides, would get an additional 0.5% pay raise next year if voters pass a mill levy override, according to recent deals reached with unions representing district employees.

Denver Public Schools could also use this money to increase its minimum wage. A city ordinance requires Denver employers to pay $15.87 per hour by 2022.

Hiring more school nurses

This past school year, only 15% of Denver campuses had a nurse five days a week. Particularly concerning amid a pandemic, 35% of schools had a nurse on campus just one day a week. 

School nurses will play an important role in tracking coronavirus cases if students and teachers return to in-person learning, as is the district’s current plan for the fall.

Hiring more school counselors, psychologists, and social workers

This is a perennial need that may increase as students deal with stress caused by the pandemic and rising youth gun violence. Past mill levy overrides have helped hire more mental health workers in schools, but principals and teachers say it’s still not enough.

Additional funding for special education services

About 11% of Denver students receive special education services. After the state education department found the district was violating some students’ rights to one-on-one support from a teacher’s aide, more students requested that type of support. The number of young students who need speech language therapy also has increased. 

The Denver school board will ultimately decide which projects to include, though board members generally follow the committee’s recommendations.

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