Michael Lucero is a restaurant owner who has lived in the fast-growing Falcon area for nine years. His two sons are students in School District 49, but Lucero couldn’t decide if he should support ballot measure 3B, a mill levy override designed to improve those schools — prior to the November 2016 election.
It was easy to oppose 3B because his taxes would go down if it failed.
On the other hand, if it passed, his taxes wouldn’t go up, and District 49, the fastest-growing school district in the Pikes Peak region which spans 133 square miles, would benefit to the tune of $7.64 million per year to build new schools and remodel older ones.
“I wasn’t too sure about it at first, but it’s all going back to the schools and education, and that’s our future,” Lucero said.
He even hosted an informational meeting — one of dozens conducted by the school district for the public — at his La Mission restaurant on McLaughlin Road, just off of Woodmen Road near the U.S. Highway 24 intersection in Falcon.
“I grew up in a small town, in Rocky Ford, and the school district down there is lacking funds; they’re closing down schools, cutting budgets,” Lucero said. “Since we moved up here, it’s night and day. The kids will really benefit from the improvements [3B] will provide.”
Some of those benefits will be realized when students return to classrooms Aug. 2. Other projects — like two new elementary schools opening in fall 2018 and fall 2019 — will take more time.
“It’ll be exciting when students come back to school and they’ll have new paint and new carpet,” said D-49 planner Melissa Edwards. “We’ve always been lightly funded, so coming up with extra money is always difficult for us, and we hadn’t been able to pass bonds and mill levies in recent years, so catching up to the needs is just a tremendous opportunity for us.”
District officials worked tirelessly to promote 3B and it passed by nearly a 2-to-1 margin. It benefited from a now- paid-off bond levy passed in the 1990s, and 3B was designed to cost taxpayers the same amount as the expiring bond levy that paid for new District 49 buildings two decades ago.
“We learned from the experience in 2014 when a capital campaign did not pass that voters in the community didn’t want higher taxes, and they wanted us to take care of existing buildings and not just build new,” said Brett Ridgway, District 49 chief business officer.
Priorities designated for 3B revenue are, in order:
• more competitive teacher salaries;
• renovate and refresh all schools;
• remodel or add to three largest high schools; and
• build two new elementary schools.
The high school improvements should be finished by 2018.
“Every year Melissa’s group would have a list of projects that needed done, and we couldn’t fund all of them that were on the critical list,” said Board of Education President Marie LaVere-Wright. “Now we’re able to be proactive rather than reactive. We’re very grateful to our voters who showed this level of confidence in us and allowed us to make these improvements for students in District 49.”
She said voters were also investing in their neighborhoods.
“The quality of schools can impact home value and the property around it,” said LaVere-Wright, who taught high school chemistry and physics for 11 years, three of those at Falcon. “Our district is growing by leaps and bounds, and we’re truly the only area for Colorado Springs to continue to grow and build. We need to be able to provide appropriate learning spaces; some of that will be new and some is keeping up to standards and with new technology.”
For instance, Sand Creek High School is being updated to accommodate new technology. Vista Ridge High School is getting a new auditorium and auxiliary gym. Falcon High School is adding flexible learning space.
As a sea of new homes swept into District 49, the student population rose dramatically. In 1982, only 1,541 students were in District 49; in 2016 there were 20,834. The numbers increased about 10 percent each year for the first decade of this century, but the rate of growth has slowed to about 2.5 percent, Ridgway said.
He said a mill levy override that passed in 2005 helped build a new Falcon High School and Vista Ridge High. But the district’s student population has doubled since 2005, creating a real need for 3B’s passage.
Ridgway was the architect of 3B, which will not expire and thus creates a revenue stream for District 49 in perpetuity.
“This is a brilliant plan — with long-term planning built in — and many other school districts have taken note of it because it’s very innovative,” said District 49 Director of Communications Matt Meister. “Brett has gotten a lot of kudos for how this was constructed.”
The 10.159 mills that all property owners — both private and business — pay will continue to generate $7.64 million annually.
“This is a revenue stream, not a debt,” LaVere-Wright said. “A bond is a debt. We asked voters to give us a consistent paycheck to allow us to improve our schools.”
The first $1 million of that comes off the top to increase teachers’ salaries — a little over $1,100 each for the nearly 900 teachers in the district.
“This forces us to live within that remaining budget,” Ridgway said. “When you do bonds, you decide what you want and how much it’ll cost; then you know how much you have to pay for it. We’re going the exact opposite way: here’s how much we can afford, and here’s how we can use this money and finance it.
“What we did was go get a $17.5 million loan — in theory. We did this instead with Certificates of Participation we issued, and to pay that $17.5 million back over 25 years, it’ll take $1.2 million every year.”
Of the remaining $5.44 million, $2.28 million annually will be used to renovate and refresh schools, and give $1.58 million each for construction of the two new elementary schools.
“What I think is the neatest part of the plan is a 10-year instrument that generates $20 million every decade using $2.28 million of that $7.64 million to take care of facilities,” Meister said. “There’s a staggered approach in how he constructed it to provide resources for teachers every year, to take care of the buildings we have each decade with a big pool of money going for that, and then every 25 years or so there will be new opportunities to finance new school construction.”
The district has 26 schools, with ground about to be broken on a new elementary school next to Falcon Middle School. The other new elementary school will open in 2019 in the Banning Lewis Ranch area.
“One of the things we’re proud of is that we’re giving back to the community by hiring local contractors [GE Johnson and Nunn Construction] and sub-contractors to the extent that we can,” Edwards said.
As for renovating and refreshing schools, Edwards said input from the schools resulted in a list of about 1,000 projects.
“Some of those are of the ‘need’ variety and some are of the ‘want’ variety,” Ridgway said.
Edwards and her staff pared the list to about 200 projects, which will take approximately three years to finish.
“On one hand, we’re like the child on the day before Christmas,” Ridgway said. “We’re so excited that we want this all as soon as possible, but we have to be patient and there has to be wisdom in how we carry this out.
“It’s managing expectations, but there is great progress being made.”