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July 31, 2019 News » Cover Story

How Harrison School District 2 won a $180 million victory…and what comes next 

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On a warm July morning, reggae-infused beats blast from a classroom corridor at the growing Sand Creek International School’s music room.

Just outside the elementary school, the auditory experience is different: The hum of traffic zipping along nearby Airport Road mixes with the rumbling of heavy construction equipment, and the ping of hand-held tools. Kevin McCullough’s barritone voice also figures prominently, as he chats with his construction crew about the exterior brick wall they’re putting in place on a 30,000-square-foot addition.

McCullough is a superintendent with Bryan Construction, a Colorado Springs-based firm with global reach, that is one of two builders hired to oversee renovations to all of Harrison School District 2’s academic, charter and administrative buildings. Overhauls range in scope from relatively simple mechanical upgrades to the replacement of Carmel Middle School.

The work is funded with a $180 million bond issue that district voters approved — by a margin of 10,172 to 6,994 — last November. It is expected to take six years, with the bulk of the renovations taking place during summer breaks. 

When work wraps in 2024, every Harrison school will have enhanced safety and security, fully ADA-accessible facilities, more efficient lighting and mechanical systems, and the capacity to serve not just as community schools but as community hubs. The district’s plan also includes improvements to its five charter schools. 

“It’s this that will make our district grow,” Harrison Co-Superintendent John Rogerson says. “It’s a fresh start. A fresh look at how we’re doing things.” 

The 2018 bond win is the first tax increase district voters have approved since 2001. It is expected to cost the average homeowner $15 per month in additional property taxes, or roughly $180 per year. 

In a community where families sometimes have to decide between putting fuel in the tank or food on the table, one might wonder how Harrison made the case for its tax. The answer lies partly in a multi-pronged, mission-forward “vote yes” campaign with massive support from a wealthy Colorado Springs businessman and the educational foundation his family launched — along with guidance from a savvy political organizer. 

But the true credit belongs to the people who inhabit D-2’s large-but-intimate footprint. 

“The community has voted to invest in itself,” Rogerson says. 

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To fully understand why Harrison’s schools so desperately needed a face-lift, Rogerson says, you first have to grasp the district’s funding mechanism. Public education is financed through a complicated mix of federal, state and local tax dollars; districts in wealthier areas tend to have a bigger share of local dollars, because they’re usually more likely to approve tax increases.

D-2’s 2019-2020 budget shows 81.2 percent of its general operating revenue is projected to come from the state. Local property taxes are expected to account for 13.8 percent — roughly $16.4 million — of the district’s revenues in the coming academic year. 

Here’s where things get a bit tricky: Voters must approve tax increases in Colorado, and state laws impact how much taxpayer money a school district (or any other taxing district, for that matter) can retain each year — and what percentage may come from residential properties versus commercial, agricultural or industrial. All of that can affect a district’s bottom line.

Complications aside, a school districts’ voters approve a particular millage (the tax rate) which is levied against the assessed value of each property in the district’s boundaries.

In the boom years of the early 2000s, property values were on the rise — and so, too, were the dollars coming in. With the economic collapse of 2008, property values plummeted. Naturally, when the values crashed, so did the amount of tax money each district collected. That meant reduced revenues for D-2.

In addition, starting in 2009, the Colorado Legislature — strapped by the same recession — used a legal loophole to avoid increasing the budget for K-12 schools in accordance with a voter-approved schedule enshrined in the state constitution. The difference between what the state actually paid school districts and what it would have paid without the legal loophole has since been recorded as a cumulative statewide total dollar figure. That sum is collectively referred to as “the negative factor,” or “the Budget Stabilization Factor.” 

Whatever you call it, after more than a decade, the sum now stands at around $7 billion, and $108.7 million in lost state funding for D-2 alone, according to the district’s 2019-20 budget. 

In D-2, Rogerson explains, the loss of funds meant the district had to reprioritize its money and make drastic cuts. Items like capital improvements, repairs and routine maintenance were shoved to the back burner. But buildings, technology and equipment didn’t stop aging just because the money wasn’t there. 

“Prior to that we had great plans for ongoing maintenance,” Rogerson says. “When the recession hit in 2008, money was cut across the state and we lost millions of dollars.

“The bond is going to allow us to reset the infrastructure.”

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Jump forward a decade to Aug. 30, 2018. The district’s board of education, faced with the reality of aging buildings and all that came with them, voted 5-0 to put its bond measure on the November ballot. That gave the schools’ advocates a little more than two months to sway voters’ opinions in favor of the measure.

“This is something that has been in the works in some form or fashion for a half a year now,” Board President Steve Seibert said during that meeting. He was excited, he said, to work with the Legacy Institute, Opportunity Harrison and the district’s charter schools on the initiative.

‘’Politically, I would probably be the strongest adversary of raising taxes, spending public funds, in the world,” Seibert said. “I would have to convince myself before I would ask anyone else to be a part of this, and through much deliberation, work with the board and staff … from my own personal standpoint, all the negatives I would have had against this have been eliminated.” 

Seibert mentioned both Opportunity Harrison and the Legacy Institute. The two are technically different entities, but they are also intimately connected. 

To look at the Legacy Institute website is to take a who’s who tour of Colorado Springs community development and education efforts, especially as they pertain to the Southeast.

The nonprofit — launched by community benefactor Margo Lane and helmed by her son, Culebra Properties Managing Director Philip Lane — includes in its portfolio: the Concrete Coyote campus in Hillside; the Colorado Springs Food Rescue’s healthful food production, distribution and education hub, also in Hillside; the redevelopment of the shuttered Helen Hunt Elementary Campus into nonprofit office space; the new downtown headquarters for USA Basketball + Foundation; the successful, $42 million-per year mill levy override campaign for Colorado Springs School District 11; and investing in the growth of Southeast’s Atlas Preparatory School.

Opportunity Harrison, the “vote yes” committee that helped push the district’s tax increase across the finish line, was the foundation’s third major educational endeavor. The Legacy Institute infused the committee with $43,200, according to state election records.

The IRS specifically forbids nonprofit organizations from participating in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, a candidate for elective public office. However, it gives groups such as the Institute the go-ahead to take on nonpartisan voter-education activities like hosting public forums, publishing voter education guides, and conducting voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives. Colorado election laws did not, in 2018, limit how much a business could contribute to ballot measures. 

In addition to money, the Legacy Institute brought aboard Anthony Carlson. If his name seems familiar, it may be because in November 2017 he helmed Friends of District 11, the committee steering that district’s $42 million-per-year mill levy campaign.

“Every kid deserves an equal chance at a quality education,” Carlson says. “Looking around at the landscape, we had realized that as tough as the situation was at D-11, for their neighbors down in Harrison, the kids … face very similar circumstances.

“Our community is only going to grow and it’s only going to be as strong as the schools,” he continues. “It’s the foundation for a future workforce, for the people who are going to be working here. The first thing people look for is how strong are the schools.” 

Harrison is home to 11,708 students, and D-11’s census figures showed 27,161 kids as of May of this year. That means the districts that serve Southeast have a big influence on the rest of the Springs, Carlson says. 

“Those two districts serve close to 40,000 kids,” he said. “They’re important not just from the point of view of educating kids and making sure kids have a chance, they’re important to the success of the community.”

Carlson brought with him a small but strong team, but the challenge remained: Opportunity Harrison had to convince an economically redeveloping and, with its large military population, transitory community, to make a long-term investment in its schools.

For that, they threw open the school doors — so to speak. 

“Let’s talk about what’s going on inside,” he says. “We made sure when … we were going out in the community, we were talking about these kids.” 

Every promotional item — from the direct-mail fliers to the TV commercials to the Opportunity Harrison website — featured local students in their classrooms, in the school hallways and on the playgrounds and fields. 

“There were no models,” Carlson says. “We made sure we told the stories of those students, not the story of financial need.” 

And that put a very human, sometimes freckled, face on the tax. 

“It’s an important message to tell,” Carlson says. “Especially with elections, it can feel dehumanizing in a way. Our message was to shine a light on the beautiful things that we can do together.” 

That was the starting point. But to really drive the message home, a volunteer team of community members, educators, building administrators, parents and students some 150 strong hit the streets. They went door-to-door, talking with homeowners about the issue and asking them to support renovated schools. 

“This wasn’t a few folks in the room sending mail or making phone calls,” Carlson says. “It was a real community effort to get people talking.” 

“If you talk with them and you show them the need, they will follow you,” D2’s Rogerson adds. “We had great support from the community and charter (schools).”

The taxes that voters approved last year will gradually pay off the general obligation bonds the district has since taken out to fund its capital improvement projects.

The bonds work quite a bit like a mortgage. The district sells bonds to private investors with a promise to repay them through future tax revenues. The ballot question approved in November caps the tax increase at $16.2 million per year and includes the creation of a citizens oversight committee to review and report to the public on the use of the funds. 

That was designed to ensure accountability above and beyond the district’s board of education and administrative leadership, Rogerson says. 

“We are being very transparent about looking at budgets and where we’re spending and where every dollar should go,” he says. “The trust that the community put in to do this is tremendous and we must honor that. 

“When it comes down to it, (we ask), as it grows our students, does it grow our staff and does it grow our community?”

Back at Sand Creek International, things are definitely growing, physically and academically. That’s because the school was one of two selected to be grown from an elementary school to a K-8 campus. Soaring Eagles will get the same treatment starting in 2022, according to the district timeline.  

The existing Sand Creek building will remain the K-5 campus it has been since its 1996 opening. Within its 62,958-square-foot footprint, mechanical upgrades include high-efficiency improvements to the climate-control systems and lighting hid behind freshly painted walls. 

During an early July visit, plastic sheeting crunches underfoot — a barrier protecting new carpet from the dirt and grime that inevitably cling to well-worn work boots. Workers’ radios blast from the music room. 

Bryan Construction Assistant Superintendent Gary Gray keys open a padlock and pulls apart the chains that secure the gym’s double doors. The vaulted, two-story walls are freshly painted in hues of blue and white; and basketball hoops lean over a covered mountain of fixtures. This is the furniture that school leaders opted to keep, a cash-saving measure in the midst of purchasing new furnishings for the space. 

There is still a seemingly insurmountable amount of work to be done on the elementary building, but Gray is confident it will be done in time for students to return to class in early August. 

Outside, it’s a dramatic and slightly different story. Cinderblock walls and steel girders rise to the north of the elementary campus. A new massive structure — a 30,000-square-foot, nine-classroom building with a gymnasium, locker rooms and cafeteria — is the future sixth-through-eighth-grade campus. 

It’s slated for completion in September, McCullough says, just six months after breaking ground. District Public Information Officer Christine O’Brien says Harrison leadership is finalizing plans for housing the first class of 60 sixth graders to call the building their academic home. Until the new wing is completely ready, she says, the students will be taught in the freshly renovated elementary building. 

Consider it a minor inconvenience for a major, long-term gain. 

“When the bond was passed, it was a great vote of confidence from the community,” Rogerson says. “I get to do some amazing things with it.”

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