Wins, losses, and split decisions: Here’s how Colorado school district tax measures fared

Voters in more than two dozen Colorado school districts agreed to tax increases on Tuesday, with some districts seeing success after several previous attempts failed.

The districts ranged from the state’s second-largest, Jeffco Public Schools in Denver’s western suburbs, to the 96-student Hinsdale County district in southwest Colorado.

Of 21 mill levy overrides on the ballot, 15 of them passed, according to a tally kept by the Colorado School Finance Project. Bond requests were not quite as successful. Of 19 requests on the ballot, 12 passed. In addition, voters in the mountain city of Steamboat Springs renewed a sales tax that pays for one in every 10 teachers in its school district. Overall, about two-thirds of the local school tax measures passed this year, the same proportion as last year.  

Mill levy overrides are a kind of property tax increase that provides schools with money for ongoing expenses, like teacher salaries or new programs. Bonds also result in increased property taxes, which are used to pay off the debt incurred by school construction projects.

The widespread success of local school taxes contrasted with the fate of Amendment 73, a statewide tax increase on corporations and higher income earners that was projected to generate $1.6 billion for education. That failed with just 45 percent of the vote. That discrepancy reflects a longstanding pattern in which Colorado voters are friendlier to local tax requests than statewide ones.

Jeffco Public Schools, which serves 86,000 students, had a split result. Voters approved a $33 million mill levy override to increase teacher pay and mental health support for students, but turned down a $567 million bond for school repair and construction. Still, with about 40,000 ballots uncounted Wednesday afternoon, some supporters of Jeffco’s tax measures held out hope the result might change.

Katie Winner, the mother of two Jeffco students, said she was shocked Tuesday night when she saw the mill levy passing and the bond failing. The voters she talked to in person were, if anything, more likely to favor the bond. But to her, the two were closely linked.

“I want to know what voters were thinking,” she said. “I didn’t see one without the other.”

Winner said if the final vote tallies confirm the bond’s defeat, it will be important to have a deeper community conversation about the future of district schools.

Voters in at least one other Colorado district were similarly divided. The Garfield RE-2 district on the Western Slope passed a $4.9 million mill levy override to boost teacher pay. But they turned down a $5.8 million bond to build eight additional elementary classrooms.

Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project, said it’s hard to know why voters sometimes approve one tax increase but not the other. One possible explanation, she said, is that voters simply look at the two dollar amounts to be raised and vote for the lesser amount, not understanding that the measures are meant to fund different things or that the bond might have a smaller tax impact than the mill levy.

“They’ll vote for the lower number, not really realizing the financial impact,” Rainey said.

Voters in the metro-area Aurora, Westminster, and Adams 12 Five Star school districts also passed mill levy overrides. For Westminster, it was the first mill levy override since 2002. The small Sheridan district south of Denver passed a $3 million override to be used for salary increases, safety measures, and new technology.

The 2,300-student Elizabeth district in Elbert County passed its first mill levy override. Three previous attempts going back to 2001 had failed, something the superintendent attributed to a largely residential tax base that would bear a bigger burden of any increase. And the 700-student Meeker district in western Colorado passed a $39.7 million bond package for a new high school. The district hopes to receiving matching grants now that taxpayers have put their own money in.

In this case, the district told voters their taxes would not go up because bond debt was being retired and the mill levy would take its place. The $1.6 million increase will go to raise teacher salaries, improve safety, and buy learning technology.

One notable exception was Pueblo 60 in southern Colorado. Voters there turned down a $6 million mill levy override that would have gone in part toward teacher and staff salaries. A divided school board voted 3-2 to ask voters for more money after teachers in the struggling industrial city went on strike in May and won increases in pay and benefits.

But the teachers union came out against the tax increase — an unusual situation — because union leaders believed it was rushed and poorly planned. With almost 17,000 students, Pueblo is the largest school district in Colorado without a mill levy override to supplement base funding. The district recently switched to four-day weeks, and has aging and underused school buildings.

“Clearly, we are disappointed in the election results,” said Dalton Sprouse, a district spokesperson, in a statement. “We will continue to educate our community regarding the critical and important needs of our district.”

The Douglas County School District, the state’s third-largest district with 67,500 students, passed a tax increase for the first time in 12 years. In fact, voters passed two. The district has said it will use $40 million from a new mill levy override to increase teacher pay and hire more counselors, and a $250 million bond measure to pay for building repairs and transportation.

The 16,000-student Thompson Valley School District in Loveland also passed both a bond measure and a mill levy override, part of which will be used to maintain current class sizes.

The 14,900-student Littleton district in Denver’s south suburbs passed a $298 million bond package that includes plans to build a Career and Technical Education and Innovation Center, as well as to repair and replace aging buildings.

“We heard from our community a need for a career and technical education pathway that will allow (district) graduates to walk right into a living wage without the need for a four-year degree and with [tax measure] 4A we will now be able to provide that,” Littleton school board President Jack Reutzel said in a press release, referring to the bond measure.

Many teachers and district officials lamented the failure of the statewide Amendment 73 measure even as they welcomed new local revenue.

“Colorado voters missed an opportunity to support our students,” Kallie Leyba of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers said in a press release. “We are very concerned about what the implications for Douglas County will be, as well as the implications for districts across our state.”

Rainey, of the Colorado School Finance Project, said that while many voters are eager to fund their local schools, they often don’t understand the big picture. Colorado’s lower-than-average state funding, coupled with the fact that some school districts have passed mill levy overrides and others have not, create wide funding disparities from district to district — something Amendment 73 backers were hoping that ballot measure would fix.

When it comes to what kind of education you get in Colorado, Rainey said, “it does matter where you live.”