Downtown Colorado Springs

The issue: 

City’s biggest school district is struggling.

What we think: 

$350 million would go a long way.

Tell us what you think: 

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Off-year November elections often fly beneath the political radar. School board elections, special district assessments and the like rarely attract passionate supporters or opponents.

The Nov. 2 elections would be equally unremarkable — if the ballot didn’t include a $350 million bond issue proposed by Colorado Springs School District 11. Supporters and opponents agree: It’s a game changer.

Thanks to the mill levy override approved by D11 voters in 2017, the bond issue doesn’t include a tax increase to support debt repayment. The proceeds will be used to support “acquiring, constructing, repairing, renovating and equipping school buildings and other school facilities.” It’s an enormous sum, and much more is at stake than simply catching up with deferred maintenance. The district’s Facilities Master Plan details the planned uses of the funds and the perceived urgency of the project.

The average school in D11 is 60 years old. Many lack basic amenities, such as air conditioning or adequate HVAC systems. Sixteen of D11’s campuses have been identified as requiring major repairs. More significantly, many school buildings are poorly located to serve today’s student population and declining District enrollment. Here’s an excerpt from the FMP.

“With the recognition of the decline in enrollment at the middle-school level, a critical component of the FMP [is] to address the excess capacity of 2,000 seats at the middle schools. North Middle School, Galileo Middle School, Mann Middle School, and West Elementary / Middle School serve the central and southwest portion of the District. The close proximity of North Middle School, Galileo Middle School, and Mann Middle School (0.75 mile radius) informed the Steering Committee’s decision to consider consolidation in the central area, while rebuilding the West Elementary / Middle School site (“West”) as a comprehensive middle school to serve the community in the southwest quadrant of the District, with a capacity to serve 500 students.”

District planners believe that consolidation, rebuilding and renovation will help stem “the historic and projected loss of student enrollment.” Otherwise, buildings will continue to decay, student flight won’t abate, and the District’s crumbling infrastructure will put the educational, economic and social health of the city at risk. 

The architects of the plan have a point. School choice empowers parents to put their kids in better educational environments. Suburban out-of-district schools often have newer facilities, more activities and better student/teacher ratios. As the FMP puts it, “Learning environments are a critical contributor to student academic outcomes.”

It’s indisputable that the learning environment in many D11 schools is unacceptable. Kids can’t learn, and teachers can’t teach, in a 90-degree August classroom. It’s also clear that the district needs to shed surplus capacity and function more efficiently. And while servicing the debt incurred by the bond issue may seem scary, stretching out the repairs, rebuilding and consolidation for 15 years may be even more costly, as inflation drives up construction costs and a generation of students endures substandard facilities.

Those opposed to the bonds complain about the cost of unionized teachers, suggest that charter schools should replace public school systems, or simply distrust the District and its planners. Many would prefer small neighborhood schools to large “learning environments.”

Yet as the FMP notes, there are some obvious trade-offs in facility planning. Rich program offerings, small neighborhood schools, low operating costs — you can have any two, but not all three.

Issue 48 is complex, epochal, expensive and ambitious. Pass or fail, its outcome is likely to affect D11 residents far more significantly than anything Washington throws at us in the next decade. So do your homework, vote your conscience and good luck to all of us — especially D11 students!