Voters approved a major tax hike for Colorado Springs School District 11 in November 2017. Eighteen months later, they have reason for concern.
The school board and administration promised accountability and results. Voters trusted them, accepting a $3.75 increase in monthly taxes for every $100,000 in assessed valuation of their homes.
“This gives us a future for this district,” said Kevin Vick, president of the D-11 teachers union, the night of the election.
Then-Superintendent Nicholas Gledich declared “this is a game changer.” With this money, they told us, the district would succeed for teachers, kids and the rest of the community.
The district began collecting roughly $42 million in additional annual revenue a year ago in March. We see no big signs of progress.
The taxes, district officials assured, would pay for additional staff and reduce the number of personnel who leave the district. Retaining teachers was the single biggest reason residents of the Pikes Peak region’s largest school district should pay more taxes.
The Gazette’s editorial board so respects teachers, consistently advocating for more pay, we endorsed the tax increase in the interest of retaining teachers.
Here’s what things look like more than a year past the tax hike.
“At least 111 positions, including teachers and administrators, could be eliminated next school year,” explains a March 22 news story by Gazette education writer Debbie Kelley.
A preliminary budget for the 2019-20 school year proposed nixing 35 elementary school teachers, 20 high school teachers, nine middle school teachers, six administrators, three assistant principals and more.
The district also might close two alternative programs, and more.
“Everybody is going to be impacted by this; there are no sacred cows,” said Superintendent Michael Thomas. “You’re going to see some depressing stuff, some challenges for the district, but I’d like you to look at it as how do we use this to realign the resources to drive the direction for the future.”
Long story short, taxpayers are paying more for less. Their kids will have fewer teachers and reduced options.
Although all this comes under the watch of Thomas and the current board, these problems result from decades of district leaders failing to keep up with leading-edge school choice and other advances in modern education. Today’s leaders must get this district competitive, and they have no time to waste.
The district suffers financially, despite the tax increase, because fewer families send children to D-11 schools in record numbers. The Colorado Department of Education reports the past year’s D-11 enrollment decline of 1,000 students marks the largest in the district’s history. That means the district is failing, in the same sense a business fails when customers and sales decrease to the point of forced staff reductions.
Under the state’s school finance formula, money follows kids. To get more money, on a basis of enrollment, schools must produce results that appeal to parents and guardians.
Properly invested in outcomes, the tax increase would make the district more competitive and attractive to families choosing places to live. Desirable, competitive school districts attract good businesses and families to the areas they serve. Failing districts drive them away and keep them away.
Although we aren’t getting swift results with new taxes, we are getting promises — as we did before the tax increase.
“We’re undertaking opportunities to do planning and get feedback from our staff, the community and businesses to set the vision, objectives and goals, and refine the mission as necessary,” D-11 board chairman Jim Mason said in February, weeks before the district announced potential layoffs.
Going forward, voters should demand vision, objectives, refined missions and goals before throwing money at a concern. Mostly, voters should tie new taxes to outcomes. Fail to deliver results, fail to collect the next round of money.
D-11 school board members and administrators probably have reasonable rationale to explain their plummeting enrollment. None of it matters. We need great schools and better futures for our kids, not pink slips for the community’s outstanding teachers.
We elect and hire D-11 board members and personnel to deliver results, and we give them the money to do it. They need to right the ship.