Last year, Colorado Springs School District 11 Superintendent Nicholas Gledich was at Helen Hunt Elementary School talking with the schoolchildren.
Aging Hunt, located in the Hillside area, was closing at the end of the year, and D-11 was remodeling nearby John Adams Elementary School to "like-new" condition to accommodate Hunt's students. The kids, Gledich says, were thrilled to be leaving an outdated building.
"A little boy asked me this question: 'Will our new building have windows that work?'" Gledich remembers. "That tells you there is something that needs to be done."
In a conversation on Aug. 15, D-11 Chief Financial Officer Glenn Gustafson and Gledich said D-11 is at a breaking point: It simply cannot keep up with maintenance on its aging buildings, staffing needs, and the demands of educating its students with its current $250 million general fund budget. Part of the problem is that state funding has not kept up — D-11, the area's largest school district with over 28,000 students, is losing about $27 million a year due to state cutbacks, Gustafson says.
At the time of the Indy's conversation with district leaders, D-11's board of education was considering asking for both a bond issue and a mill levy override in the Nov. 8 election. The board has since approved both.
"The MLO dollars will allow us to keep up," Gledich says, "but the bond dollars will allow us to catch up."
D-11 hasn't asked voters for money in more than a decade, and this time around, the district is doing something different: Telling voters exactly how it will spend the extra cash. The district's "Vision 2030" plan (tinyurl.com/D11Vision2030) involved a public process aimed at identifying building and operational needs. Gledich says the process found "an incredible amount of needs," which were then winnowed down and prioritized by employee, parent and citizen representatives, as well as by the board of education. Those were used to create a spending plan.
"We're looking at the redevelopment of an inner city school district," Gustafson says. "And if we want to compete with the Cheyenne Mountains [District 12] and [Academy] D-20s of the world we've got to have the facilities and programs to compete ... When we're working with 30 percent less mill levy than D-20, and 50-year-old schools compared to 20-year-old schools, it's hard for us to compete. "
The district is requesting a $32.6 million permanent mill levy override (property tax raise), phased in over eight years, and a $235 million bond issue (loans paid for gradually by a rise in property taxes). The average cost to homeowners for both would be about $10 per month to start, going up to $20 a month over 15 to 20 years, Gledich says. Gledich notes that the district will have a program that will allow people to volunteer at schools to "pay off" their extra tax costs.
Unlike past bond issues, the one D-11 is requesting this November will not be spent on building new schools. Instead, the money will go to repairing and refurbishing schools in the district, particularly the oldest ones, as well as additions to some schools and other needs. Half of D-11's facilities (which span 4.2 million square feet) are approaching an average age of 50 years old and need basic maintenance like new plumbing, roofs, boilers and windows. Gustafson says the recently opened Adams is a good example of what the district hopes to do with the bond: remodel old schools so that they feel like new schools.
The bond will also update school cafeterias; add a centralized kitchen production center for the district; improve athletic fields and locker rooms; add "curb appeal" to some aging schools with fresh paint, landscaping and sidewalks; and allow some charter schools to make needed updates. Other needs include new school buses (the average age of D-11 buses is 8 years), new technology (over 65 percent of D-11's computers are considered obsolete), and intercom systems (high- and middle-school systems are over 15 years old and parts aren't available for some). In some cases, that outdated technology is a safety risk.
"Our telecom is the backbone of our security system," Gustafson explains. "Teachers in the classroom — that's their lifeline."
The mill levy override would fund more of the district's recurring, rather than one-time needs. That includes conducting annual facility maintenance, hiring more teachers to reduce class size, increasing the number of School Resource Officers (police officers who are assigned to schools) and security officers, buying new computers, funding charter schools at a higher level, adding school nurses and social workers, and purchasing classroom supplies.
Adding security and police is an urgent focus for the district. Last year, D-11 partnered with the El Paso County Sheriff's Department for Operation Safety. The sheriff provided undercover deputies who tried to enter school buildings unnoticed and make it all the way to the principal's office. If they succeeded, they handed the principal a yellow sheet of paper. Gledich says about 15 principals got the yellow slip, and afterward, schools worked to improve security.
"The safety and security of our children is No. 1 and we know that a Columbine or a Sandy Hook could happen at any time," Gustafson says. "And we're most vulnerable when we have 300 or 400 kids flooding through the doors in five minutes."
More nurses are also important, Gledich says, because far more kids have medical needs, including many with life-threatening allergies.
And then there's the need for more teachers. Class sizes in D-11 elementary schools are about 25 kids, while high schools and middle schools generally have 26 to 30 kids. The district wants to add 10 new teachers district-wide who could be assigned to schools that experience overcrowding at the beginning of the school year, keeping class sizes reasonable. For instance, Gledich says, at Adams in mid-August, 24 kids enrolled in a day.
If D-11 triumphs with voters this November, spending from the bond and mill levy override will be audited annually and overseen by the district's Citizens Oversight Committee.
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