DENVER — Last Thursday night the board of Colorado’s largest school district approved sending a property tax increase request to voters. By a vote of 4-1, the Jefferson County Board of Education agreed to ask its suburban Denver property owners for $39 million more in operating mill levy funds and $99 million more in capital project bonds.
Back in the days when the economy was flush, a request like this one might have been a cinch. Yet after last year’s Proposition 103 statewide “it’s for the kids” tax hike went down in a ball of blue flame (64-36, including 62-38 in Jeffco) — not to mention an unusually large failure rate of local school tax elections — leaders perhaps should have given pause. But somehow asking for more money seems the easiest course to take.
Overcoming a reluctant electorate hamstrung by economic woes will present enough of a challenge. But the more voters learn, they will find very little to assuage their skepticism. As the local activist group Jeffco Students First (JSF) has highlighted, the district currently employs more than 1 employee for every 7 full-time equivalent students. And JSF executive director Sheila Atwell has noted that from 2005 to 2011, Jeffco “spent a cumulative 450M additional general fund dollars” while enrollment has declined or stayed flat.
Where has the money gone? The local Examiner‘s Regan Benson identified a few areas: district membership fees and dues to various organizations, pizza and other food, not to mention a $9 million new district phone system. All of them might be overlooked, except that the rising costs of the state’s Public Employee Retirement Association are driving the demand for more money. The pension problem has been left unsolved by the state, to be sure, but Jeffco leaders haven’t exactly been pushing for reform.
Tax increase supporters say the money is needed to avoid larger class sizes and to prevent your student’s art and music programs from going away. Last year, rather than enhance efficiencies in the district transportation system, Jeffco initiated fees for students to use bus service.
Even if the campaign to raise Jefferson County school property taxes somehow succeeds this fall, no one should act under the illusion that more funds will improve education outcomes. Until the system changes in ways that put students and families ahead of adult interests, or at least until the economy starts to shape up, the hard lessons may continue.