District 11 hoping that lessons learned mean voter support 

Last November, voters gave a resounding thumbs-down to a District 11 request for a $29 million increase in property taxes.

The result left D-11 mired in a $5 million budget shortfall and the butt-end of community mistrust and criticism. The district spent much of the year in crisis management, dealing with a superintendent change and $1 million in administrative cuts.

A year later, D-11 faces an $8 million to $12 million budget shortfall for 2000-2001, and the district is again asking voters to approve a mill levy override, this time to the tune of $26.9 million.

The district, however, claims it learned a critical lesson from last year's drubbing. It has abandoned the administration-centered, top-down management style for a bottom-up, citizen-driven, student-centered approach.

Last year's question also called for massive amounts of money to be spent on technology, expenditures which were not clearly defined by top administrators at the time.

"The public was right to deny last year's request," said interim D-11 superintendent Norm Ridder, who stepped in after Kenneth Burnley announced in May that he was departing after 12 years as superintendent.

"It was a case of the administration deciding what's best for the district and then doing a sell job to the public. This year we've tried to reverse the process by asking the community what it wants and responding to that," Ridder said.

The problem last year

Election postmortems, two surveys and an independent audit performed in the wake of D-11's loss last year revealed a fundamental rift between the district and the community.

Survey respondents indicated that they favor smaller class sizes, increased safety and back-to-basics instruction. The administration, however, was focused on D-11's massive computer infrastructure that it considered essential, but the public considered ill-conceived and poorly-managed.

Had the mill levy passed, only two percent of the amount would have gone to reducing class sizes, and that only in elementary schools.

In February, then-superintendent Burnley set off a firestorm of community protest by proposing closure of five neighborhood schools. The move would have saved the district $1.29 million annually, but the proposal reinforced perception that D-11 priorities were not centered in the classroom. Burnley eventually backed off on the closures.

A poll conducted by FrederickPolls of Arlington, Va. found that 40 percent of D-11 voters assigned the district a D grade or an F grade for unwise spending, that one-third rated the district unfavorably, and one-third believed the leadership wasn't "truthful and honest."

Amid all that finger-pointing and rancor, the local Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development Corporation, the Housing and Building Association and the board of realtors pooled resources to fund a $20,000, independent financial review of D-11 by Denver-based KPMG Consultants.

Finding no evidence of "negligence or poor financial management," the audit identified the district's key problem as poor communication and "credibility" problems with the public.

The difference this year

A step toward better communication transpired when 12-year superintendent Burnley resigned in May to accept the top position in the Detroit public school system, the nation's fifth largest school district.

"Things were ugly when I got here," Ridder said an interview last week. "The teachers mistrusted central office, the parents liked their school but not the school district, schools were in sterile separation from the community.

"I want to get the schools back in the community and the parents back in the schools," he said, "and I've met with most of central office to get them in the mind-frame of being servant to the schools instead of dictating to them.

"The morale of the teachers has changed 180 degrees and I'm seeing teamwork, enthusiasm, excited parents," he said.

Not everyone is persuaded, however.

"The district needs more housecleaning to get rid of the old guard," said Toby Norton, a D-11 parent and activist.

However, Norton and others say they are impressed with the interim superintendent's efforts to decentralize what has been perceived as a top-heavy central administration.

Bill Jambura, who ran an unsuccessful bid for the school board last year, said he also opposes this year's mill levy.

"The bureaucracy needs to be flattened further," he said. "I'm all for the teachers and the principals, but I don't like what's happening to taxpayer money between the administration building and the front door of the schoolhouse. Money is still being sponged away from the classroom."

3B this time

If 3B passes, people who own the equivalent of a $150,000 home would pay an additional $78 in taxes the first year ($6.50 per month). After approximately five years, the increase would rise to $178 a year ($15 per month).

Ridder said the $535 a year in property taxes paid by the average D-11 homeowner is second-lowest of the seven surrounding school districts. Homeowners in Harrison School District in east-central Colorado Springs pay the lowest at $493, whereas homeowners in Academy District 20 pay $850 in school-related property taxes.

This year, the district has formulated a 24-point spending plan that spells out exactly what the mill levy revenues would be spent on, and it will set up a Citizen's Oversight Committee to monitor where, and how effectively, funds are spent.

Ridder says this year's request differs significantly from last year in that it focuses on what the community wants: reduced class sizes, increased teacher pay (to attract and retain superior teachers), teacher training in CSAP-linked literacy improvement techniques, expanded student testing, improved classroom instructional materials, better integration of technology and instruction, and increased school security.

"We cut to the bone this past year," said D-11 Chief Financial Officer Glenn Gustafson. "Eight million dollars to $12 million in cuts this year will have to mean fewer teachers, reduced programs, school closures and drastically reduced athletic programs.

"There's no way to maintain the status quo with our present funding. The only possibilities are moving forwards or backwards. There's no in-between."


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