Douglas County Board of Education approves putting tax initiatives on ballot

School district vouchers overshadow $220 million measures

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The Douglas County Board of Education has voted in favor of placing a $200 million bond and $20 million mill levy override on the November ballot.

But if public input is any indication, the school district is fighting an uphill battle to get those tax initiatives passed.

Residents who spoke at the public hearings on the proposed tax increase let district board members know that, as long as school vouchers are on the table, any additional funding is off.

The board of education hosted back-to-back public hearings days before the deadline to file its ballot question in time for the 2011 election. Residents who spoke on the matter were united in their opinion that the school voucher issue clouds any plans the district has to ask voters for more money.

The school board’s decision to put the initiatives on the ballot was not unanimous. The 5-2 vote was rendered the night of Aug. 30.

The district unveiled its plans to ask for a bond and mill levy override in mid-August. To meet the Sept. 2 state deadline for the tax initiatives, the school board called a special meeting Aug. 29 and invited public comment at its regularly-scheduled meeting Aug. 30.

In so doing, it met the legal requirement to host two public hearings on the ballot initiatives, said Randy Barber, district spokesman.

Its efforts weren’t enough to satisfy a handful of residents who attended the first meeting to give public input on the proposal. Public comment reflected reluctance to give the school district more money to funnel to its school voucher program.

“Unless the board passes a resolution to stop vouchers, you have lost our vote,” said Bob Pazer, Castle Rock. “We are not going to vote for increasing our taxes to give to private schools.”

Pazer’s comments were echoed by others involved in the school vouchers, which were halted Aug. 12 by Denver District Court Judge Michael Martinez. The first public hearing for the tax proposals came on the same day Martinez denied the school district’s request to stay his decision pending a higher court decision.

The fight over the vouchers surfaced in a conversation between resident Cindy Barnard of Highlands Ranch and board member Doug Benevento. Barnard is a member of the Taxpayers for Public Education, one of the groups that filed a lawsuit against the school vouchers.

Her research into district finances disclosed expenditures of nearly $82,000 spent on the law firm representing the district in the voucher lawsuit. Most of that money was spent designing the program, but the investment raises questions in the face of a request for higher taxes, she said.

Benevento’s response reflected their opposing viewpoints.

“It would help if you’d drop the lawsuit to alleviate the legal costs,” Benevento said. “That’s what I tell everyone. We are committed to spending as much as we need to advance the scholarship program.”

The district presented its initiative for a tax increase at the Aug. 16 board meeting, with a proposal to ask voters for a $200 million bond for capital improvements and a $20 million mill levy override to finance pay for performance for its teachers and staff.

Pay for performance will be based on a program launched this year, which features a new assessment system to look at teachers’ classroom effectiveness by evaluations that could potentially include feedback from students and parents, Barber said.

“The idea is to give significant compensation to teachers who are highly effective,” he said. “We are at the very early stages to discuss how this might look.”

The district also aims to adopt a world class education curriculum, stressing classroom collaboration, critical thinking, communication and creativity, Barber said.

“We are really trying to improve already excellent teaching that’s going on in our classroom,” he said.

Public comment in support of the tax increases came from principals at Douglas County elementary, middle and high schools.

A consultant firm hired by the district joined the meeting with a presentation that suggests, with assessed values expected to drop, the tax impact on the average Douglas County home will be minimal. Consultants also stressed the importance of a clearly-stated mission for a successful election.

“You need to make the case that the value outweighs the cost,” said Dustin Zvonek, EIS Solutions. “That the reform implemented will be better for parents and homeowners because with an improved school district comes higher home values. The best way to win a campaign is with honesty. Don’t get cute, tell them what it’s going to cost and what they’re going to get.”