School districts test voters’ mood

Despite the fragile economy and perceived voter grumpiness about taxes, 33 Colorado school districts are seeking tax increases in this election, for construction bonds, operating revenue or to provide Amendment 61 escape hatches.

Among the larger districts proposing bond issues are Falcon ($125 million), Poudre/Fort Collins ($120 million) and Mapleton ($32 million).

Larger districts seeking mill levy overrides – higher taxes for operating expenses – include Boulder ($22.5 million), Brighton ($3.2 million), Durango ($3.2 million), Littleton ($12 million) and Poudre ($16 million).

The list of districts was compiled and released by the Colorado School Finance Project, a research and advocacy organization.

Colorado voters have a generally positive history of passing bond issues and overrides. But ballot measure prospects this year could be complicated by the economy, voter emotions about government and taxes and the presence on the ballot of statewide amendments 60 and 61 and Proposition 101, three complex and controversial measures that could mean dramatic cuts in state and local revenues if passed.

But other factors have pushed districts to seek more money, including the need to raise matching funds for state Build Excellent Schools Today grants and a desire to replenish operating budgets that have been squeezed by cuts in state school aid.

Referring to that budget squeeze, Bruce Caughey, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, said, “These districts have looked at the writing on the wall, and they’ve decided now is the best time to ask.”

There are “two schools of thought” among districts, Caughey said, with others probably waiting until 2011 in hopes the economy may improve and voters will be less uncomfortable about raising taxes.

Ken DeLay, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, echoed those comments, saying, “A lot of school districts are looking at their bottom line … and trying to hold onto the programs they’ve got. … A lot is really driven by the financial condition of the state.”

DeLay added, “Whether any of them will pass is anyone’s guess.”

Bond issues

Only Falcon, which is dealing with enrollment growth, and Poudre, which wants to upgrade technology, security and building conditions, are seeking “stand alone” bond issues, for a total of $245 million.

Eight other districts have proposed bond issues totaling $76.5 million to match BEST grants. The largest request is Mapleton’s $32 million, followed by Salida’s $17.9 million.

Overrides and Amendment 61

Some 23 districts are seeking overrides. The notable requests include:

  • Boulder, $22.5 million to restore budget cuts, expand early childhood education and improve staff pay.
  • Poudre, $16 million to offset losses in state aid and to maintain class sizes and restore cut positions.
  • Littleton, $12 million to offset state cuts and maintain classes sizes and workforce.
  • Brighton, $3.2 million to hire new teachers and fund instructional materials and new technology.
  • Durango, $3.2 million to maintain class sizes and attract qualified teachers.

The Summit County district has proposed a combined measure that includes $2.1 million to offset state budget cuts and $3.5 million to cover cash flow needs if Amendment 61 passes.

Only two other districts, East Grand and Estes Park, have proposed ballot measures related just to Amendment 61, the first for $4 million and the second for $2.5 million.

Because Amendment 61 would ban state debt, the treasurer’s office last summer canceled a loan program used by some school districts to manage their cash flow. That’s a problem for some districts, especially those with large local and small state revenues, because local property taxes aren’t paid until the second half of the budget year.

(See the full list of proposed ballot measures here.)

Mixed results in last two years

In 2009 only five districts sought bond issues. Mapleton needed $30.1 million to match a BEST grant but lost narrowly. The other issues in four small districts passed.

In 2008 there were 27 bond issues proposed, with about half passing and half failing. Notable losers, according to Department of Education records, included Adams 12, Brighton, Douglas County, Jefferson County, Mapleton and Mesa County. But Aurora, Cherry Creek, Denver and St. Vrain passed bonds, among others.

Only three districts sought overrides last year, down substantially from the more than two dozen that proposed them in 2008, according to CASE. The largest 2009 request, Greeley’s $16 million, failed. Fewer than half the 2008 override proposals passed, according to CASE. (See this CDE web page for links to information on bond issues and overrides.)

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede