- Pam Zubeck
- Adams Elementary principal Nat Hansen, left, and Anthony Carlson.
After failure at the polls last fall, Colorado Springs School District 11 — the region's biggest — will try again in November to push through a property tax increase to fund everything from staff pay to building improvements.
The district will not resubmit a debt measure, however, after voters told district officials that seeing two measures on the ballot seemed "confusing and greedy," says D-11 spokesperson Devra Ashby.
The result? The bond issue failed by a 48-52 margin, while the tax hike went down by less than a 2 percent gap.
This time, D-11 supporters hope things will be different. They'll focus on only the tax hike (mill levy override) and are putting together a new campaign team to push a measure that would give D-11 $42 million more in property taxes to fund operations and capital improvements. That's larger than last year's ask of $27 million.
If approved, the phased-in change would add roughly $4 to $8 in taxes per month for every $100,000 in market value of a home.
D-11 Chief Financial Officer Glenn Gustafson says the district closed 14 schools in five years some years back, among the most aggressive closure schedules in the country. Now, D-11 wants to focus on updating its 1950s and 1960s buildings, which he describes as "tired" and in desperate need of work, notably new technology.
"Why is it that our lowest economic neighborhoods have the poorest schools in terms of conditions?" he says. "Wouldn't it be nice to have all the bells and whistles as those schools to the north [in Academy District 20]?"
D-11, which serves 26,342 students, last passed a mill increase in 2000. Meanwhile, several funding measures have been adopted by voters in surrounding districts, notably Cheyenne Mountain District 12, Falcon District 49 and D-20, leading Gustafson to predict the latter two will overtake D-11 in size within a few years.
Last election cycle, Friends of D-11 raised $126,000 to campaign for the two measures. Former City Council President Pro Tem Jan Martin was a spokesperson for that effort, and says, "You need a whole fresh approach to this, a new face. One issue only will help focus the campaign." The biggest challenge, she says, is convincing retired voters who no longer have kids in the school system.
Zachary McComsey, a former El Pomar Foundation fellow who started and ran Atlas Prep School in the city's southeast, leads the recently formed Lane Institute for Urban Education and Leadership. It's funded by Margot Lane who also endows the philanthropic Lane Foundation, which bought the inner-city Helen Hunt Elementary School to overhaul as a nonprofits nerve center. The Lane family also helps promote the city's core area.
McComsey notes the Lane Institute wants to help improve educational opportunities via greater funding. "We said, 'We'd like to help you. How can we do that?'" he says. "Our only project this year is to invest [in], support and champion Friends of D-11, so they can get more infrastructure. D-20 is opening shiny schools on the north side. If you see that and see your [city] neighborhood school is 50 years old, you move there. It hollows out the middle of the city. If we don't address this, how do we grow a downtown?"
The campaign will get sizable donations from the Lane Institute — $25,000 to start — and will be run by Anthony Carlson, a Democratic campaign consultant most recently associated with progressive group Together for Colorado Springs. Carlson calls schools "the heartbeat of our community," which lead to individual achievement, safer neighborhoods and attracting better jobs.
An example of what might be achieved with new money is Adams Elementary, at 2101 Manitoba Drive, which got a $7 million upgrade last year that added the latest technology, air conditioning, a new playground and exterior work.
"That is the dream for all those schools in the middle of the district," Gustafson says.
The D-11 board is expected in June to adopt a statement of intent to refer the measure to voters, followed by an official vote in August.