AURORA | The Aurora Public Schools Board of Education this week approved a mill levy override for the November ballot, a tax question worth $15 million that would add more than $8 to monthly property taxes for a median Aurora home.
During its regular meeting held on Aug. 21, the board approved the ballot measure by a vote of 6-1, with board member Jane Barber providing the only dissent. If approved by voters in November, the $15 million mill levy override would add about $5.71 per month in property taxes for every $100,000 of actual home value.
Before voting against the issue, Barber said she couldn’t ask voters to bear an additional financial burden in a difficult economy. While the rest of the board voted for the tax increase, that prospect seemed to weigh heavy in their discussion.
“I believe personally that this is a double-edged sword in terms of what we do moving forward … I do believe our community is impacted by the decision,” said Dan Jorgensen, the board’s treasurer. “We’re pulling money out of our local economy which further damages what’s going on with our families … It’s not an easy decision.
“That being said, our students need the money and the district needs the money,” Jorgensen added.
If passed, the money would go toward operational expenses in the school district, costs that include academic programs, security and technology improvements. While board members debated specific language that would appear on the ballot issue during its Tuesday meeting, administrators have said the $15 million would go toward filling funding gaps left by state cuts over the past several years.
In a message written to APS district staff and administrators on the district’s website, Superintendent John Barry said the mill levy override would “recover a portion of the state funding that APS has lost since 2009,” specifically for operational costs. That includes academic programs, classroom technology, equipment and curriculum materials, teacher retention and maintaining smaller class sizes.
APS isn’t the only local district that’s asking voters for money in a tough economy. Earlier this year, the Cherry Creek School District Board of Education approved two ballot measures for the fall. A $125 million bond issue that would add a $6 million wing to Grandview High School and a wing to Cherokee Trail High School that would cost $7 million. That bond issue would also fund maintenance projects and technology improvements across the district.
What’s more, Cherry Creek will ask voters for its own $25 million mill levy override, money that would fund curriculum, teachers and classroom tools. Together, the two issues would add about $8 per month in additional property taxes to an average home in the district, according to the organizing committee. The mill levy increase will be 3A on the ballot, and the bond question will be 3B.
Cherry Creek board members say they’re also aware of the tough economic environment as they begin the campaigning push for the issues.
“We always have concerns. Any time that you go to voters for a tax initiative, we’re always sensitive to that,” said Cherry Creek Board President Jennifer Churchfield. “(But) we felt as a board that we needed the opportunity to go to voters … We felt that we couldn’t go one more year.”
In 2008, both districts took similar risks with voters that paid off.
Cherry Creek’s successful 2008 bond and budget election helped fund new elementary schools, operational costs and capital improvements across Aurora and the rest of the district. Four years ago, the district passed $203.5 million dollars through a bond issue and another $18 million through a mill levy increase.
In 2008, APS passed a $14.7 million mill levy. In the past four years, that money has gone toward programs like Fifth Block, an initiative that provides extra weeks of summer instruction for students across the district. The money also paid for the expansion of programs like International Baccalaureate and Academic and Career Pathways.
Those local successes weren’t an anomaly, according to Colorado Association of School Boards Executive Director Ken DeLay.
“There were a fair number of school issues that passed in 2008. Well over 50 percent of the questions that were on the ballot that year passed,” DeLay said. “The last couple of years — especially in 2010 — it’s been much tougher to get things passed. This year, there are a fair number of districts that are going out with issues again,” he added, citing districts like Jefferson County and St. Vrain in Longmont. “Most of them are going out because they’re at a place where they feel if they don’t get money, they’re going to have to cut programs.”
That tough reality has been at play at Aurora Public Schools, a district that’s felt cuts totaling almost $80 million in the past four years.
“One of my largest, most important tasks that I hope to continue with … is the importance of us managing in a fiscally responsible way how we’re spending this money that we’re getting from this community,” Jorgensen said before voting on the mill levy measure. “Any tax has a negative impact on families … I just want that to be taken into account.”
Immediately after the vote on Tuesday, APS board members shifted their focus to the coming campaign season.
“I also intend to be active in the community, pounding the pavement until election time,” said Board President JulieMarie Shepherd. “(Board member) Jorgenson gave us some good context. (But) given the realities of the situation we’re facing … we don’t know until we ask.”
All things being equal, when it comes to school dollars they’re really not
State Equalization Act redistributes most school tax dollars to ensure consistent education programs for all students
The School Finance Act that passed the state Legislature in April disbursed about $5.3 billion in total program funding to schools across the state for the coming academic year, money that’s set to help cover the operational costs of K-12 education.
How that money is divvied up between the state’s 178 school districts depends on a variety of factors, considerations that include enrollment numbers, personnel costs, the amount of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch and statistics tied to the cost of living. The complex formula for determining the final per-pupil funding figure for each district is spelled out as part of the Public School Finance Act of Colorado that initially passed in 1994.
It’s a funding structure known as “equalization.” Under this system, districts that collect less revenue from local sources like property taxes receive a greater amount of funding from the state, while districts with greater local revenue get a smaller share.
But because of amendments in the state constitution like the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights and the Gallagher Amendment, that ideal has fallen flat.
“If you go back and read the 1994 act, the legislative intent says amongst other things that they wanted to create an environment in which 50 percent of the state’s overall funding came from local taxpayers and 50 percent came from state taxpayers,” said Colorado Association of School Boards Executive Director Ken DeLay. “They also said that they wanted the mill levy that was paid in every school district to be the same regardless of local wells … In concept, most experts would tell you that the 1994 act was a pretty good act, but it never worked the way it was designed. Part of it was the TABOR and Gallagher impact caused the local tax rates to diverge in a very perverse way.”
In Aurora, the breakdown in the state’s per-pupil funding figures for the two school districts isn’t too dramatic – Aurora Public Schools is expecting a total of a little more than $6,710 in per-pupil funding, while the Cherry Creek School District’s figure for the 2012-13 year is about $6,398. The state average is about $6,474.
Those figures come in a year when both districts will seek property tax increases for operating expenses on the November ballot. What’s more, Cherry Creek will ask voters to pass a $125 million bond for the district that would add renovations and expansions at buildings across the district.
“Part of what these districts are trying to do is fill the hole of the state cuts, to get themselves back to where they would be if the factors were being funded properly,” DeLay said. “Quite apart from the recession, we have been in this curious place where we’ve been losing local tax base that’s been backfilled by the state,” he said, pointing to the impact of TABOR and Gallagher, “That’s added some strains to the state budget. One of the things that local school districts have done has been to go out to their local voters.”
Last year, the enrollment at APS was about 36,297; the 2011-12 enrollment at Cherry Creek was more than 51,000. The difference of approximately $300 between the two districts’ per-pupil funding ratios breaks down to issues of real estate, enrollment counts and poverty levels.
In Cherry Creek, for example, the district receives about 53.6 percent of its annual budget from state sources and about 46 percent from local revenue streams. About 0.4 percent comes from the federal government. That breakdown stems in part from the taxable property in the Cherry Creek district, according to Spokeswoman Tustin Amole.
“We are fortunate in that we do have a good combination of commercial and residential tax bases,” Amole said. “We get less, for example, from the state. We rely more on local tax than many rural school districts … there may be school districts in the state that receive several thousand dollars more than we do,” she added, referring to districts like Pawnee in Weld County, which has a total enrollment of 88 and is set to receive more than $15,000 for every pupil in the coming year.
The difference isn’t as stark between Cherry Creek and APS. Still, APS relies more heavily on state funding than other nearby districts, largely because of the lack of large industrial and commercial infrastructure in the district that could generate large amounts of property tax.
“Right now, if you added up the state budget stabilization factor and then added up the state sources we get 73 percent of our funding from the state. We get 27 percent from property taxes,” APS Superintendent John Barry said during a budget town hall meeting in June. For comparison, Barry added that the average breakdown for school districts in Colorado is 66 percent from state funding and 33 percent from local sources. “When the state takes a hit, that’s when we take a hit. You have to keep that in mind. We do not have the valuation, we do not have the infrastructure that a lot of these other districts have.”
Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at firstname.lastname@example.org or 720-449-9707