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School District 51 mulls mill levy override

Now that the Mesa County School District 51 Board of Education has approved a budget for the upcoming year, the district is proactively asking voters if they’d support a November ballot measure designed to raise more money for education from property taxes.

In a direct mail flier sent to voters in early July, the district offers reasons they might support an override of a mill levy freeze imposed by the Colorado Legislature that covers the public school portion of property tax bills. About half of all property tax revenues in the state go toward K-12 public education.

The mill levy is a number by which a property’s assessed valuation is multiplied to calculate yearly property taxes. Ironically, the mill levy freeze was billed as a method to allow the state to collect higher property taxes for schools each year because the freeze was instituted during a period of rising real estate prices in Colorado. But during the past two years, home prices have fallen in most communities. In Mesa County, the median home price in Mesa County during the first half of the year was $162,500, down 14.4 percent compared to the first half of 2010. The unintended outcome is reduced tax revenues at a time when schools are cutting budgets.

A story in the June 23 to July 11 issue of the Business Times, referred to the proposed ballot measure as a waiver of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, an amendment to the state constitution limiting government taxing and spending.

District 51 Superintendent Steve Schultz later explained the ballot proposal is sometimes called a TABOR waiver because it would result in an increase in tax revenue retained by the district. TABOR requires voter approval for tax increases.

Voters in Mesa County approved mill levy overrides for the school district in 1996 and 2004, said Melissa Callahan deVita, executive director of support services for School District 51.

If voters approve a mill levy override in November, their tax bills will still be lower in 2012 than they were in 2011, she said. That’s because the average homeowner will see a bill that’s $300 lower if the status quo remains in effect. A mill levy override would result in a reduction of about $170, with the school district receiving the $130 difference, Callahan deVita said.

In late June, the District 51 Board of Education approved a $138.4 million budget for the 2011-2012 year. With $13.6 million in budget reductions, the district announced the reduction of 185 full-time positions. The cuts are a portion of a total of $28 million in reductions since the spring of 2009.

Most of the staff reductions are targeted for jobs that indirectly affect classroom instruction. Fifty-three teaching positions are included among the 185 cuts, according to the district’s report. For every dollar the district spends, 86 cents is earmarked for classrooms, while 1 penny goes to administrative costs, Schultz said.

The flier informs recipients they’ll receive a community survey in the mail in a few weeks. The district plans to decide in August whether or not to seek a mill levy override measure on this year’s ballot.

Extra revenue from increased property taxes would be used for teachers, time and technology, said Callahan deVita.  Some teaching positions would likely be reinstated, the school year would be extended to help offset the reduction of three instruction days in the upcoming school year and more time would be spent teaching students how to use modern technology.

At the same time, a statewide effort seeks petition signatures in an effort to place a tax increase proposal on the November ballot. The organization, called Support Our Schools For a Bright Colorado, seeks to ask voters to increase sales and income tax rates to increase funding for education. The state sales tax rates would increase from 2.9 percent to 3 percent, while the state income tax rate would rise from 4.63 percent to 5 percent for five years beginning in 2012.

While District 51 faces an estimated $11.9 million shortfall for the upcoming school year, Schultz recommended the $13.6 million in reductions due to the unpredictability of specific ownership taxes collected in Mesa County.

The number of students who enroll each year is also an unknown. The district predicts an enrollment drop of 165 students, but won’t have a final head count until October. If the drop is smaller, the district might have to add teachers. The $13.6 million in cuts gives the district some potential latitude to expand expenditures as the school year progresses.

“It’s easier to add a teacher than to lose a teacher,” Schultz said.

The district is hamstrung when it comes to cutting funds in some areas, though. For example, federal dollars earmarked for special education can’t be spent for anything other than special education.

Budget cuts have led the district to consider consolidation of schools and the possible closure of Scenic Elementary School on the Redlands. Parents concerned about such a development showed up in force at the meeting in which the school board approved the budget. Board members reiterated such a closure was only under consideration and wouldn’t happen before the fall semester of 2012. Community meetings are planned for September to hear more public comment on the situation.

But after three years of cuts and the layoff of classroom personnel, just about everything is under scrutiny when it comes to deciding what might be cut next.

“We’ve got to look at every potential,” Callahan de Vita said.

The district has so far rejected suggestions from the public, including a four-day school week with extended hours each day, elimination of middle school sports programs and higher fees for music and other programs.

Public comments are just one piece of data used in making decisions, Callahan deVita said. The district ultimately decided to trim the school year by three days to save $1.8 million instead of reducing the number of days of weekly instruction based on cost-benefit considerations and comments from inside and outside the school organization. Adding three days is a much smoother transition for everyone compared to adding a day a week back to the schedule, she said.

Reduction in extra-curricular activities can have consequences that are more costly than the money saved in the short-term. “Our goal is to keep students involved,” Callahan deVita said. “The fact that they’re involved is something.”

In addition to feedback via the upcoming mail survey, the district seeks public input via the Internet. Comments can be sent to tellus@d51schools.org.

About
Mike Moran has worked as a news and sports reporter, and news manager for the past 30 years, in markets that include Rochester, New York; Colorado Springs; Panama City, Florida and Monroe, Louisiana. He also teaches Speechmaking at Mesa State College and assists his wife, Toni Heiden, in managing her real estate company in downtown Grand Junction. Mike is active in Kiwanis Club of Grand Junction, the Mesa State MBA Alumni Committee, Habitat for Humanity, the United Way and the Botanical Gardens of Western Colorado.
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