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D-11 and other districts may ask voters for more money

click to enlarge This shows how many D-11 kids excel on CSAP, with the - goal of 100 percent.
  • This shows how many D-11 kids excel on CSAP, with the goal of 100 percent.

Colorado Springs School District 11 could ask voters for as much as a $21.5 million mill levy increase come November money that is expected to improve student achievement and hopefully bring the district closer to meeting requirements of No Child Left Behind.

Deputy Superintendent and chief financial officer Glenn Gustafson notes that in the 2006-07 school year, about 58 percent of D-11 kids were scoring proficient or advanced on the Colorado Student Assessment Program test (CSAP).

But in precious few years, D-11 needs 100 percent of its kids to score proficient on the test or it could lose some chunk of federal funding under the provisions of NCLB.

That goal is lofty, if not impossible.

"I don't know anybody that's made it," Gustafson says. "Not in Colorado."

D-11 isn't exactly Colorado's most likely candidate to meet that goal, with or without the extra money. The district has long been losing kids, and the funding that goes with them. D-11 students increasingly come from poor families. In the 2003-2004 school year, about 35 percent of D-11 kids qualified for free or reduced lunch. In 2006-2007, more than 42 percent qualified. That's 7 percent above the state average, and the figure is expected to grow.

Yet the news isn't all bad. D-11 has the highest composite CSAP scores of any large school district with that percentage of kids qualifying for free or reduced lunch. And those scores have been increasing.

"We want to take it to the next level," Gustafson says. "In my opinion, until we get into the 70 percent proficiency level, we're not a legitimate force in this community as far as educating our children."

The D-11 board has yet to approve a ballot question regarding the mill levy increase, and it likely won't make a decision until August. But the board is eyeing a preliminary draft of the proposal, which currently allocates half the $21.5 million to lengthening the school day by 25 minutes and paying teachers and staff more competitive salaries.

The rest of the money would be used for textbooks, equipment, new curriculum, arts programs, additional high school courses, foreign language classes in elementary schools, career and technical education, and to help programs like special education, gifted and talented, and English language learners.

Mo' money?

The question is, will voters many of whom are watching their wallets these days really approve a tax increase? Even if businesses figure to take the brunt of it?

Gustafson says now is as good a time as any. Mill levy increases tend to fare well in presidential election years, when more voters (and particularly parents) get out and vote.

But others aren't so sure.

Board member Sandra Mann says $21.5 million is simply an unrealistic figure in today's economy. She thinks the district will need to ask for less in order to win voter approval.

"I think it's going to be a tough year for any mill levy to pass, just because people are suffering with the mortgage situation and gas," she says.

Board member Bob Null agrees the district needs more money, but like Mann, he thinks the district could be more conservative in its strategy, especially because an extra $21.5 million would (at least for now) max out the taxes the district can collect under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.

"I would say we need to come $3 million, $4 million, $5 million below that to have an emergency alternative," Null says, adding that he wants to rework how the money is allocated.

Javan Ridge, D-11 director of research, recently conducted two community forums asking voters what they thought of an increase. A grand total of about nine citizens showed up to each forum, but most, Ridge says, were sympathetic to the district's needs.

Former D-11 board member Willie Breazell was one of the attendees. Known for his conservative viewpoints, Breazell nevertheless says he might support the mill levy, provided teachers are given raises only if they can show academic improvement in their students. The district, he says, needs the money.

D-11 has won over voters in the past. In 2000, citizens approved a $27 million mill levy increase that was phased in over eight years. Ed Plute, chair of the mill levy oversight committee, says that money has made a difference. But while he thinks the district could use another boost, he's not sure voters will go for it.

Not alone

D-11 isn't the only local entity looking for a tax increase. The county plans to ask voters for a 1 percent sales tax increase, and several other school districts are looking for a mill levy increase or override.

Harrison School District 2 might ask voters again for an increase. (Its last attempt failed.) Academy School District 20 is considering asking voters for a mill levy override (which would not raise taxes). Lewis-Palmer School District 38 has tentative plans to seek a $2.7 million increase to better compensate teachers and maintain student programs.

Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8 may ask for a $600,000 increase per year just enough to qualify D-8 for a federal program that will help it build schools. Largely because of Fort Carson expansion, D-8 is expecting 50 percent more kids to enter its system over the next five years.

stanley@csindy.com

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