District 11 leaders must get their priorities in sync with the voting public or risk losing a mill levy freeze this November -- which would escalate the district's budget crisis dramatically.
That is the scenario suggested by a telephone survey of 300 D-11 voters conducted last month by FrederickPolls of Arlington, Va. The survey was sponsored by the Colorado Springs Education Association, the city's largest teacher's union.
Pollster Keith Frederick said mistrust of the administration is high among voters and that respondents believe the administration is spending taxpayer dollars unwisely and inefficiently.
The D-11 administration received an overall approval rating of 58 percent, but 40 percent assigned the district a D or an F for unwise spending. Additionally, a full 34 percent rated the district unfavorably -- a figure Frederick reports to be "10 to 15 percent worse than the national average."
The poll indicates more than a third of the voters don't believe the district is "truthful and honest" with the public. "That's an unusually high level of mistrust," said Frederick. "In a truly solid district, that figure would be 10 to 11 percent. The average nationally is about 20 percent.
"Clearly voters feel money is wasted so why give [the administration] more?"
The results of the poll come during a time when D-11 administrators are warning of catastrophic cutbacks, including school closures, if voters nix another mill levy request this November. Half those polled last month, however, said they don't believe defeat of the tax increase will necessitate drastic cutbacks.
This credibility gap has prompted two recently formed D-11 citizen action groups to request a financial and administrative audit of the district by an independent, privately contracted third party.
"The district has a serious perception problem with the public," said Rocky Scott, representing Community Quality Group, a core of local business leaders.
"An independent audit will let the public know if its money is being spent wisely," said Scott, who is also the chairman of the Greater Colorado Springs Economic Development Corporation. "If it is, let's define the deficiency and decide how to remedy it. If it isn't, let's put this issue behind us."
On Monday, D-11 Superintendent Kenneth Burnley said he welcomed the scrutiny of a third-party audit and pledged to cooperate fully.
The CSEA survey pinpointed increased teacher pay, increased teacher training and reduced class sizes as the top three priorities of D-11 voters.
But D-11 board member Sherry Butcher would not say whether those priorities will drive future district budgets.
"A modest pay increase for teachers is one of the line items in the budget assumptions for the 2000 to 2001 school year," she said. "We want to reward our people in the trenches, but we have to be responsible. If we give away the farm, there'll be nothing left to farm."
A sales tool
Butcher agreed that burgeoning class sizes have eroded district education -- and reducing them is the public's no. 1 priority. However, administrators have not set any funds aside to bring about smaller classes next year.
"We've ruled out increasing class sizes, though," she said.
Butcher also challenged survey results indicating that the public believes top district administrators have squandered money on a district-wide technology program unfitted to back-to-basic needs.
"Our taxpayers said, in approving the 1996 bond issue, that technology is important to them," she protested. "More people voted for the technology program than for building new schools and repairing buildings.
"I've had teachers tell me that our technology program is what attracted them to this district," she said, "and parents have told me that's why they enrolled their kids here. It's a sales tool for District 11."
Quality of life
Butcher said closing schools remains an option with the administration despite the furor caused in the community in the wake of February announcements that five schools would be closed next fall as a budget-balancing measure.
That possibility doesn't sit well with several citizen reform groups, including Scott's Community Quality Group.
"A recent survey by the city's planning department showed 84 percent of the people of Colorado Springs believe their neighborhood school is the glue that holds their community together," said Scott. "If we begin closing schools in District 11, the core of the city will crumble. The business climate and quality of life of this town will deteriorate."
Butcher, though, said that's not the message she's gotten from the public. If the mill levy override fails in November, Butcher said the district will have no choice but to close neighborhood schools.
"I had as many citizens telling me that closing small and inefficient schools is good as I did telling me that it's bad," she said.