Business groups support School District 51 ballot measure

Two business groups have come out in support of a ballot measure to increase property tax revenues for Mesa County School District 51.

The Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors voted to support a measure that will appear on the November election ballot. The Grand Junction Economic Partnership Board of Directors also has come out in favor of the measure.

The Mesa County School District 51 Board of Education voted to place a measure on the ballot requesting a mill levy override.

If voters approve the measure, District 51 would be allowed to override a statewide mill levy freeze and assess an additional seven mills of property tax for six years. The increase would raise an estimated $12.5 million for the district each year at the current level of property values in the county.

The mill levy is the number by which the assessed value of a property is multiplied to calculate yearly property taxes. The mill levy freeze initially was implemented in 2007 as a way for Colorado to collect higher property tax revenues for schools because the freeze was instituted during a period of rising property values. But as property values decline, the unintended outcome of the freeze has been reduced tax revenues at a time when schools already are cutting budgets because of declining state revenues.

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 and cut the school year by three days. The cuts are a portion of a total of $28 million in reductions since the spring of 2009.

Melissa Callahan deVita, executive director of support services for School District 51, said in an earlier interview with the Business Times, additional revenue from increased property taxes would be used for teachers, time and technology. Some teaching positions would likely be reinstated, the school year would be extended to help offset the reduction of three instructional days in the upcoming school year and more time would be spent teaching students how to use modern technology.

According to a news release from the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, the board considered the effects of increased taxes on commercial property owners. The board voted to support the ballot measure, however, for a number of reasons:

Businesses depend on education and work force development to find qualified employees.

School District 51 ranks among the lowest funded schools in Colorado in terms of general fund appropriations under the School Finance Act funding formula. District 51 will receive about $6,100 per student this year, while the state average is $8,400.

School District 51 has already cut its budget the past three years and faces an additional $8 million in cuts if current state budget forecasts hold true.

The local ballot measure would insure that all funds collected are spent in the local school system under the local control of the school board and administration.

The amount of the local tax will vary with the assessed valuation of property, meaning lower values will cushion the effects of the tax increase.

The School District 51 tax increase would end after six years, at which time the school board and community could re-evaluate financial needs.

Kelly Flenniken, interim director of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, said that group’s board voted to support the measure because of the importance of public education to economic development.

The quality of local schools and workforce training are among the criteria companies use in determining where to open or relocate operations, Flenniken said. “It really is an important part of the big picture.”

In addition to voting to support the School District 51 ballot measure, the chamber board came out against a statewide ballot measure that propose to increase sales and income taxes to generate additional revenue for public schools in Colorado. The GJEP board didn’t consider the statewide measure.

Proposition 103 — a ballot initiative speared by State Sen. Rollie Heath, a Democrat from Boulder — will ask Colorado voters to raise their taxes for five years in generate an estimated $3 billion in additional funding for education. If approved by voters, the measure would increase the state personal and corporate income tax rates from 4.63 percent to 5 percent. The measure also would raise the state sales tax rate from 2.9 percent to 3 percent.

In its news release, the chamber noted that the statewide measure would allocate additional tax revenues under the same formula in which School District 51 receives funding at a lower level than other districts in the state.