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School District 11’s mill levy override tries to level the education playing field



It’s not enough to recognize the educational disparity in our city. At some point, we have to deconstruct the systems that cause the problem and build solutions that work for all of us. The disparity in resources allocated to rich and poor students in Colorado Springs is widening. Colorado’s current model creates caste systems that disadvantage lower socioeconomic classes, and it needs reform. As University of Northern Colorado associate professor of economics Dr. Dawit Senbet notes, “Education is at the core of not only higher income, but becoming an informed citizen.”

In November 2017, the city’s largest school district, Colorado Springs School District 11, once again will ask its voters to pass a mill levy override, an increase in property taxes. The same question, along with a bond issue, failed in November 2016. Because of current state funding structures, school districts like D-11 rely on mill levy ballot questions to raise money to counter some of the ongoing shortfalls in state funding. D-11 alone has $26 million in annual shortfalls, according to Glenn Gustafson, the district’s chief financial officer.

The problem is that the state constitution doesn’t require school funding to be absolutely equal. A study conducted by the Center for Policy Studies at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs also found that even though Colorado’s current school funding formula uses state sales and income tax revenues to balance out inequalities in taxable property in our 178 school districts, “as the proportion of residential property value in a school district increases, local tax revenues per pupil decline.” This is due to the state’s Gallagher amendment, which requires that a lower percentage of assessed residential property value be taxed than that of commercial property. Plus, thanks to the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, districts have to deal with the budget stabilization factor, more commonly known as the negative factor. This refers to money that the state technically owes school districts but is unable to pay.

After a period of time, without a mill levy override, the affected neighborhoods become densely populated wastelands filled with little black and brown kids riding the conveyor belt to find their respective place in the “caste system.” Socioeconomic factors are blurring the racial line a bit though, and the assembly line is now taking applications for poor kids in general.

Gustafson says: “We have a lot of kids in poverty. The challenge is finding the time and the programs for those kids to achieve.” He adds that they need to reduce class sizes, and bring “more aides and more teachers in the classroom.” If this is the case for D-11, whose free and reduced-cost lunch population (a measure of child poverty) is 60 percent-plus, according to Gustafson, what does this mean for Harrison School District 2, located in the city’s southeast, which has a free and reduced-cost lunch population from 70 to 92 percent in each of its traditional schools?

A lot of people think that poor families can escape poor schools, because the state allows parents to “choice” their kids into any public school — though school bus service isn’t provided for the option. But here’s what that really looks like. For the better part of a period of five years in this city, I traveled on the city bus no less than 3½ hours per day in order to “choice” my children into a high-performing school in a high-performing district.

I did it because at the time, and with all the other odds my family was facing, I felt I must provide my children with access to the best possible education that I could. I wasn’t willing to chance their educational outcome on my local school in D-11. Most families in our position couldn’t have and wouldn’t have done that, and I understand. It was beyond a sacrifice, one that cost us in numerous ways, and unbeknownst to me at that time, it came with unanticipated social consequences. We did it until we literally could not afford to anymore, until the bottom fell out.

When a school system fails, the marginalized bear the biggest brunt. Education is one of the few resources we have to balance the scales of inequity, and research shows the achievement gap especially affects minority kids, particularly black boys.

Thad Gemski, Colorado Education Association’s Unified Staff Service Program (UniServ) director says: “At a certain point you are not going to cut your way to success. Often when the mill levy override is spoken of, we talk about the money. But this is our story, our promise and the promise we have to the success of every kid — everybody.”

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