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Mail election will test constituency interest and participation in local schools

It may not feel like an election's coming -- at least not yet -- but on Friday, Oct. 12, mail ballots will be sent out to El Paso County voters in a broad-based election including school boards and bond issues in many of the county's school districts.

It's hard to anticipate what voter response will be, given the national preoccupation with terrorism and the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, but at least one school board candidate thinks voter participation may be enhanced by the national crisis.

"People are realizing it's their country and the right to vote is one of our basic freedoms," said District 11 school board candidate Linda Sterrett. "I have a feeling it's not going to be taken for granted this time around."

School board members will be elected in Colorado Springs District 11, Harrison District 2, Cheyenne Mountain District 12 and Academy District 20 on Nov. 6, and in some cases the races are beginning to register a rapidly increasing pulse of activity.

In Harrison District 2, five candidates are vying for three open seats. Among the candidates are three incumbents who have been part of a visibly contentious board in the southeast end of the city -- Steve Hester, Jan Bruner and Henry W. Blackwell. Over the past two years, board infighting has plagued the Harrison School District, resulting in a dysfunction that included past superintendent Clifford O. Brookhart leaving his post immediately before the start of the 2000 school year.

Looking to take two of the three available seats are community activist and African-American pastor Rev. Jesse Brown and schoolteacher Kay C. Mast.

"The current board has some issues of not getting along," said Mast, "and I'd like to help with that." A teacher in the district for 23 years, graduate of Harrison High School and parent of a Sierra High School graduate, Mast is the only board candidate in that district who, in a recent interview, emphasized the retention of students and staff as a top priority.

Of 1,000 first-graders in D-2, only 400 eventually graduate from a D-2 high school, a mobility rate of 35 percent in one of the city's fastest-growing areas. And in 1999, District 2 lost 20 percent of its staff.

"We need to find out where these students go, what are their needs, how we can meet them and how we can retain them," said Mast. "Last year beginning salaries for staff were raised, and that problem has lessened somewhat; some staff who were thinking of moving elsewhere did not."

Mast heralds District 2 as the "real world" among Colorado Springs school districts in terms of socio-economic, ethnic and educational diversity, qualities she believes are assets to students and to the community at large.


The largest district

In Colorado Springs District 11, the city's largest school district, eight candidates are seeking election to three seats, including those of incumbents Karen Teja and Mary Wierman. Wierman and Teja, along with candidate David Linebaugh, deputy director of security at Memorial Hospital, have received the endorsement of the local teachers' union, CSEA.

Among those who would like to take a seat on the D-11 board are former D-11 schoolteacher Catherine Ball, who's running a campaign based strictly on mailing and walking at a cost of about $300, and Craig W. Cox, who has been endorsed by the local Board of Realtors and the Home Builders Association. Both candidates expressed particularly strong support of Dr. Norm Ridder, D-11 superintendent, and said they felt Ridder needed stronger support from the board to move ahead with his vision. Cox strongly advocates site-based management for individual schools, an agenda of Ridder's that has not yet seen the light of day.

"[The current board] is too hesitant about letting things be implemented," said Cox, father of two D-11 elementary school students. "They've debated a lot of issues, but now it's time to move forward and implement."

"Everybody in District 11 is so supportive of Dr. Ridder," said Ball. "I feel he needs more support from the board."

The chosen candidate of CPT-11, an outspoken group of education "citizens, parents and taxpayers," is Linda Sterrett. In addition to supporting Sterrett's candidacy, CPT-11 has promised to launch an anti-incumbent campaign, based on their displeasure with the current board's actions during the campaign for the mill levy in 1999, especially the board's threat to close smaller neighborhood schools as a budget balancing measure.

"Some of the parents are very upset that the incumbents have not always put the kids first," said Sterrett. "It shouldn't be a personal attack on the incumbents, but this is an excellent opportunity, with three seats open, for change."

Also running for a D-11 board seat are Randy Rickards and school "choice" advocate Willie H. Breazell, an activist in the campaign to gain grassroots support for school vouchers.


Bursting at the seams

In addition to electing new board members, four area school districts will attempt to secure voter support for bond issues in the Nov. 6 election.

The largest debt increase, if passed, will be in Academy District 20, to the tune of $163 million. Organizers there say the money will be spent on building a new high school, a new middle school and four elementary schools; and to make additions to Pine Creek High School and Rampart High School to accommodate new students in the short run. In addition, the cash would be used for technology improvements, repairs, remodeling and upgrades on all the district's existing buildings.

Yes on C3 campaign spokesperson Vicki Taylor characterized the bond issue as "very urgent," given a growth rate of 4 percent per year since 1995 in the north and northeast areas of the district.

Harrison District 2 voters will be asked to approve of a $60 million debt increase to build a new middle school, a new elementary school and a new K-8 school; to replace Gorman Middle School; and to make additions and upgrades to a number of existing buildings. According to board member Steve Hester, the debt will shake out to about $30 a year for a household with a home assessed at $150,000.

Designed into the bond, added Hester, is the ability to borrow less money if projected real-estate projects in the area don't come to fruition, thereby lessening the need for new schools.

"If the need does not actually arise," he said, "we will not accrue the debt."

Falcon School District 49 and Hanover School District 28 are also asking voters to approve bond issues.


Asking voters for a de-Bruce

Responding to limits in spending and revenues imposed by the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), School Districts 2, 11, 20, 28 and Peyton District 23 JT have all placed de-Brucing measures on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Penned by Colorado Springs anti-tax crusader Doug Bruce, the measure requires voter approval for any increase in taxes or debt for government entities, including public school districts. TABOR also limits government revenue increases to a formula based on inflation and local growth.

Public school districts can ask voters for approval to increase taxes, incur debt or spend revenue in excess of their TABOR-imposed spending limits by placing the issue on the ballot. When districts ask voters to allow them to keep revenues collected in excess of the TABOR tax limitation, they are effectively de-Brucing. According to D-11's de-Brucing campaign information, of Colorado's 176 school districts, 93 percent or 164 districts have requested and received voter approval to de-Bruce from 1993 to 1999.

In District 11, de-Brucing would essentially mean that the district would be allowed to spend revenues collected from private revenue sources such as private and corporate sponsorships, the district's print shop revenues and fees collected for other services. In Harrison and Academy districts, de-Brucing clauses allowing the districts to spend revenues raised by proceeds of bonds are included in the bond issue requests.

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