Four potential mill levy questions that Durango School District 9-R could put on the November ballot debuted at two community meetings this week.
District Superintendent Dan Snowberger presented four possible tax increases, saying it could be one or more the school board elects to put on November’s ballot, if they choose to do any at all.
The options are:
A general override mill levy for $1.7 million to be used for operating costs, which would be specified.
A $1.1 million increase to pay for full-day kindergarten because the state reimburses the district for only 5/8 of a day.
A $965,000 increase to cover the difference between state reimbursement and cost of transportation.
Creation of a special building and technology fund for $14.9 million to cover deferred maintenance projects and upgrade the district’s technology infrastructure.
“We also don’t want to crush businesses,” Snowberger said, noting that a $1.7 million override would cost the owner of a $500,000 home $45 annually and the owner of a $1.5 million business more than 10 times that, $490. “If we go, I want us to do it as a community, not win by just 51 percent, because that amount of ill will from almost half the voters would be harmful to the community.”
Part of the process is to look at programs that have been cut, such as trade and the gifted and talented programs, to see if there are any the community wants to get back, he said.
“The state reimburses us $40,000 for gifted and talented,” Snowberger said. “That doesn’t even pay for one teacher, not to mention the one teacher in each school we had before.”
At the presentations, Snowberger said the district is now expecting a balanced budget for the 2015-2016 school year after at first projecting a deficit of $465,000, then dropping it to $215,000 in January. About $200,000 of that is considered contingency funds.
“We got there by a few adjustments,” he said, “including salary adjustments after hiring new teachers because we always budget for the highest salary level possible. The fact that we’re short so many bus drivers, we’re not paying those salaries, And if we continue with a few good months, we’re not paying as many substitutes as we had in the budget.”
Most of the attendees at a meeting Tuesday seemed to agree some mill levy increase was a good idea.
“But if we’re here, it means we’re already interested in education,” Mary Kay Stewart said. “I’d want more information before cutting out the last one, but as long as kids can do keyboarding, that’s all they need to write papers. Kids have access to technology; they all seem to have smartphones.”
John Anderson, former president and CEO of New American Schools, disagreed.
“I think we need to fund all of the first three,” he said. “But there’s a lot of need for technology, so poor kids can have the same access to technology as rich kids.”
Another big question, Snowberger said, is what other mill levy requests will be on the ballot, which could affect the school board’s decision on the timing as to when they ask voters for the overrides.
“There may be another request from the (La Plata) county for roads and bridges, for an airport, and the city might have something,” he said. “We worry about overwhelming voters and having them vote ‘no’ on everything.”
Attendees at the Tuesday meeting encouraged the district to conduct larger polls, including paper surveys at area businesses and broadcast emails rather than depending on people to visit the district’s website. The district is planning to take their advice, Snowberger said Thursday.
They also had a few ideas about potential cuts.
Naomi Azulai, who has two young sons attending Park Elementary School, saw the possibility of cutting transportation costs by having buses service mostly rural kids and eliminating some of the in-town routes.
“Maybe instead of saying you’ll bus kids who live 1 mile away from school, you could extend that to 5 or 6 miles,” she said. “I could get my kids to school if I had to, but what’s right for my family might be a hardship for another.”
Busing from rural areas really does make a difference, Snowberger said.
“We’ve seen a substantial impact, particularly on our rural schools, with these rolling bus cancellations,” he said.
District 9-R Board Vice President Nancy Stubbs said the biggest piece of any mill levy request will be to educate voters about school finance.
“When I ran two years ago,” she said, “people said, ‘We keep throwing money at schools, what are you doing with all of it?’ They don’t seem to understand we’re (Colorado) spending so much less than before the recession.”
Colorado spent 12 percent per pupil less in 2013 than in 2008 in 2013 dollars, and 8.37 percent below the U.S. average, Snowberger said.