How did Colorado school district funding measures fare at the polls this election?

Jenny Brundin/CPR News
The JeffCo Public Schools office building.

Most of the 21 Colorado school districts that asked for money on the ballot this year – for teacher raises, building upgrades and improved security — got it. But there were some losses.

Tiny Bennett school district won’t get a new high school to address overcrowding. Or space for technical and career education.  Or enhanced safety and security in schools. Voters turned down a bond measure 45 to 54 percent.

Teachers and bus drivers and custodians in Ellicott School District No. 22 east of Colorado Springs won’t get a pay raise. Nor will those in Douglas County. Property tax increases, called mill levy overrides, failed in those districts.

But Boulder Valley will be able to accomplish quite a list: repair, replace and upgrade buildings, remove asbestos, create lab-like classrooms for career and technical education, and replace a high school, and build a new elementary school in Erie to relieve overcrowding.

Weld RE-4 teachers will get a raise to be competitive with surrounding districts.

Fewer funding measures this year 

Compared to other election cycles, there were fewer local school tax measures this year. Tracie Rainey of the Colorado School Finance Project, which tracked all the school funding tax measures, says it takes about 18 months to really have the time to “bring people together to understand what the issues are, why they’re going for an election.”

The pandemic interrupted that. But she expects more districts to run tax measures next year and in 2024. One reason is that state lawmakers will again attempt to overhaul the school finance system.

“And so, I do think you're going to see potentially more districts deciding to start planning for that, given that they are very insecure about what that future is going to look like,” said Rainey.

Mill levy overrides ask voters for money on top of the set property tax rate for each district. That has created inequity between districts because some can pass such measures and others can’t. Even some districts with high property tax wealth are loath to pass them – such as Douglas County.

That county had the most hotly contested school funding measure in Colorado. By 2,634 votes, the county narrowly shot down a $60 million mill levy override that would have given teachers on average a 9 percent raise and classified workers like classroom assistants and cafeteria workers a 9 percent boost on average. Voters also defeated a $450 million bond to build three new neighborhood schools in fast-growing areas.  

Douglas County, the ninth wealthiest county in the nation, has a median household income of $119,730 a year. The measures, if approved, would have cost $52 per year, per $100,000 of home value. But tax measures have historically been difficult to pass in the conservative county. Turbulence in the school district didn’t help. Earlier this year board business was mired by fighting, the firing of a popular superintendent, and district judge ruling that the board had made decisions in secret.

The divided board did unify behind the ballot measures, with a politically diverse campaign committee and all board members out campaigning for 5A and 5B.

At a board meeting Tuesday night, the seven-member board voiced optimism and were “pleasantly surprised” at how close the race was. An early poll showed it going down much more handily.

“I just wanted to say how incredibly proud I was of the entire district and the community for coming together and being able to put our differences aside and really band together around 5A and 5B,” said board member Christy Williams. “Even though it didn't pass, I think we made huge strides.”

Board members said they hope to try again next November. Board member David Ray said he’d like the district to do a more in-depth analysis of why people who voted for a similar measure in 2018 may not have voted this time around.

“And then to listen to really understand why they may have chosen not to support this time around. But I think as long as we (a divided board) strive to work towards consensus, I think our community will continue to support us for the next 12 months. But I do think the next 12 months is going to be indicative of what happens in November 2023.”

For  27J, eighth time’s a charm

The biggest victory went to the 27J school district, a large district that spans parts of Adams, Broomfield and Weld counties. 

"Absolute elation and a sense of relief” was the reaction of Superintendent Chris Fiedler, after the measure passed.

Voters had rejected 7 previous efforts to pass a mill levy override. The district has had to take drastic measures like cutting programs, holding back on raises, going to four-day school weeks, and in some cases, doing split schedules at schools. The starting teacher salary in the district is currently $43,000 a year, well below other metro Denver districts.

This time around, the campaign concentrated more intensively on focus groups, parent surveys and used the services of Magellan Strategies, which managed 11 ballot measure surveys for Colorado local governments and special districts this election.

“We really listened to what our community, parents and members of our focus groups told us was most important to them,” Fiedler said.

This year they added school safety to the list of what the measure would accomplish because on the heels of the Uvalde tragedy in Texas, people said they wanted armed security at elementary schools. That was listed first in the ballot language, followed by raising teacher and staff salaries, followed by career and technical education so students can get hands-on job skills in science, technology, engineering and math.

Fiedler said they worked a lot on the ballot language, expanding it and making it very specific about those three items that would be funded. It also specified that no revenue from the tax will be used for administration salary increases. But teachers will get at least a 7.5 percent salary raise, though that could go higher if Gov. Jared Polis’ budget proposal holds, Fiedler said.

Parents, school staff and an alliance with Rocky Mountain Partnership, which hired young people as civic influencers to explain school finance and the measure to voters, also helped. There was lots of outreach to the Spanish-speaking community and younger voters, which Fiedler believes made a big difference, too.

There was another unique twist as for why 27J may have crossed the finish line this year: The Commerce City Council passed a tax cut in early October to offset most of the school tax increase that homeowners would see.

“I've never seen that done, I just was shocked and grateful for that bold move,” said Fiedler. “That had a tangible effect.”

The all-hands-on-deck effort paid off.

“People have asked me what made the difference, and it’s 100 things,” the veteran superintendent said.