School districts ready projects after ballot issue wins

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Fresh from victory on school financing ballot issues at the polls, local school districts are already preparing to fund their most pressing needs.

Voters approved funding measures Nov. 7 for Colorado Springs School District 11, Widefield School District 3, Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 and Peyton School District.

For D-11, a mill levy override will bring about $42 million annually in tax revenue for improvements. It’s the first time voters have approved a tax hike for the district since 2000; they voted down a bond and mill levy override by a narrow margin last November. The property tax will cost the owner of a $200,000 home in D-11 approximately an extra $14 monthly in 2018, gradually decreasing to about an extra $6 per month in 2023.

Widefield’s $49.5 million bond and $3.5 million mill levy will see homeowners pay an extra $9.25 monthly per $100,000 of property value.

While the districts are moving quickly to ready their projects, D-11 Deputy Superintendent and CFO Glenn Gustafson and Widefield COO Dennis Neal both say there’s a wait before they’ll have cash in hand and residents begin to see the funds in action.

For both districts, money will start trickling in from property taxes around February, increasing pace in March and May. While D-11 expects to have collected $40 million of its $42 million by August, many of the district’s most visible projects are a few years away.

“We have to be a little bit patient,” Gustafson said.

To make the financing more affordable, D-11 is phasing in its mill levy override while lowering its bond levy, so big-ticket projects are further down the list.

“Even though we get all $42 million, we’re phasing it in over six years. … So the first six years we’re building up that money to pay off the bonds in 2023 and we won’t see as much impact in terms of it going to what we want to do,” Gustafson said. “By year six we’re putting $18 million into our facilities — boy, at that point you’re going to see us gutting schools and rebuilding them from scratch. You’re going to see amazing things.”

But raises for teachers will come quickly, Gustafson said.

“The pay will be the big splash because that’s all front-loaded — they get that in Year 1 and Year 2,” he said. “Over the next seven months they’re going to get a 7 percent pay raise, so we will be much more competitive on our salary schedule. … We will immediately be close to the market for similar school districts.”

May 1 will see the first wave of pay raises for D-11 teachers and education support professionals such as bus drivers, food service workers, teacher aides and secretaries.

“We’re trying to move as fast as we can for two reasons — one, to incentivize our staff to stay, because this will be right at the end of the school year,” Gustafson said, “and two, to boost our salary schedule so that while we’re recruiting for teachers for next year, we’re able to attract those teachers…

“We’re a labor-intensive business — 85 percent of our budget goes to people. So the ability to attract and retain the best quality staff is critical to us fulfilling our mission, and quite honestly we’ve been losing them to other districts.”

D-11 facilities will have $4 million in the first year — “we have a billion dollars of assets, so $4 million is not going to be a big splash,” Gustafson said — and time is of the essence.

“Our most difficult challenge is we have one window of construction, and that’s between Memorial Day when the kids are out, and mid-August when kids come back,” Gustafson said. “We’ve got to have contracts signed, ready to roll by Memorial Day so that work can begin. … We’ve got a lot of hoops to clear.”

Gustafson said the funding will “absolutely” impact Colorado Springs businesses of all sizes, especially when construction ramps up to $17 million to $18 million annually as the bond is paid off.

“The facility [work] will almost all be locals — and we’ve already had meetings with them, telling them about the process…,” he said. “We don’t have a local preference but … a tie goes to local. They’ve got to still compete, but if it’s even close we’re going to take the local vendor over a national every time.”

Widefield Director of Communication Samantha Briggs said Springs businesses also will benefit from District 3’s construction projects.

“We try and keep it local as much as possible, and unfortunately in the Widefield area we really don’t have very many local businesses, so Colorado Springs is obviously where we’ll be reaching out,” she said.

Neal said school security and improvements to high school auditoriums will be among the first needs addressed, along with electrical upgrades and life safety issues in the district’s older buildings.

“Some of our buildings run from 1950s vintage … so there’s some definite electrical needs and technology needs in those buildings,” he said.

Neal said Widefield is applying to Colorado’s capital construction grant program, known as BEST (Building Excellent Schools Today) to make its dollars go further. If successful, money will come from the state in August.

The biggest project on the horizon for Widefield is the construction of a new pre-K-8 school in Lorson Ranch, funded by the bond.

Widefield’s elementary and junior high schools are “pretty much at capacity across the board,” Neal said — in fact, the district’s website says there are “1,400 students learning in portable trailers and that number will increase in the fall.”

Critical maintenance projects at existing schools will start in the spring, Briggs said, and Widefield aims to break ground on the new school in June or July.

“For our students and our staff we’ve really done more with less for so long now, and with the state continuing to cut funding, we hit a point where we really needed this,” Briggs said. “This is not the fix-all, end-all … but this is really going to help us to continue to make those improvements and provide for our students.”

Winning with 57 percent of the vote was “huge” for D-11, Gustafson said. “We’d like to think people are understanding that the state is not funding schools at an adequate level and this is how you solve the problem. … We’ve got 26,000 kids that are depending on us for the best quality education, and this is going to make a difference.”

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