MONTROSE — Although final plans to raise new revenue for Montrose schools have not been completed nor itemized, district officials and a group of committed citizens say a smart, calculated campaign to educate voters about the district’s needs in the coming months could result in significant improvements for area students.
During the Montrose County School District RE-1J work session Tuesday evening, the consensus between board members and members of the Community School Improvement Team (CSIT) was to continue seeking school improvements, while awaiting word on a grant application to rebuild Columbine Middle School.
The district is looking to generate $3.28 million this November, from either a voter-supported mill levy or a sales tax increase, in an effort to decrease class size and improve school security and technology with a goal towards improving student achievement and retaining teachers.
The $3.288 million represents half of the $7 million in cuts the district has made over the past few years.
Earlier this year, the district applied to the state for a Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) grant, which would pay for half of the cost to rebuild Columbine Middle school, priced at $12 million.
Senate Bill 213, which recently passed along party lines, will be voted on in the Senate late next week or the week thereafter. It is designed to generate $1.1 billion annually for Colorado schools. The money will replace cuts the state has made over the past decade.
If the bill passes the Democrat-controlled Senate, it will move to the state House of Representatives and will possibly be signed by Governor John Hickenlooper. The bill aims to change the state's finance laws, which would put the tax increase on the November statewide ballot.
The timing of all of this creates uncertainty within the district. If the BEST grant fails, the fate of a new Columbine fails with it. If the BEST grant is approved, the district would have to add an additional $6 million to the $3.288 million to help pay for half of the school's construction.
If SB 213 passes, and the BEST grant is denied, the district would have to reexamine its revenue needs and how much state money could bring to RE-1J.
District superintendent Mark MacHale said the revenue from SB 213 would amount locally to at least $1,100 to $1,200 per student, and that he expects the figure could be higher.
Overall, the picture remains unclear until May, when SB 213 is decided on and the BEST grant decision is expected. However, board members said Tuesday, plans to start educating the public on new revenue goals could begin within weeks.
"Whether it's Senate Bill 213, or a mill levy or a sales tax I don't know. But we can't be in the basement in funding and do what we need to do," MacHale said. "My biggest fear is competing ballot initiatives in my own community; that makes me nervous. Trying to go for a mill levy or sales tax that works for us, at the same time that the state is trying to do something [to help], that raises my anxiety level.”
School Board President Dr. Kjersten Davis said accountability through measurable results is the most important goal. "There needs to be a price tag attached that we can show to the community and say, ‘Your tax dollars will buy this and have this measurable result.’ If we put forward our best effort [but] the community is going to say, ‘No way,’ because we have increased county taxes, sales taxes and state taxes, then I question if now is the right time," Davis said.
Davis and board members thanked the volunteer efforts of the CSIT for their efforts. CSIT member Scott Stryker said voters across the state passed mirror-images of Montrose’s plan during the election last year.
“I don't want to believe that the citizens in our community are different...I think we’re behind in education, and I think that they get [what] the state of education is, in the nation and in our community," Stryker said. Davis said additional plans to open classrooms to more volunteer resources is one way the district can increase education resources without increasing costs. She said the district could survey the community to see if a mill levy or sales tax is something local residents might support.
MacHale said he is hopeful dialogue can “raise the level of conversation about education in this community.”
"I think the only way to fight a fight is to begin to fight the fight, and if you lose, you go back and train better and do it again," MacHale said.
On Monday, members of the school district met with members of the Montrose Recreation District and the City Council to discuss those organizations’ needs and discuss preliminary recommendations, including shared services, in order to figure out how to fund the school district, new rec district projects and city programs without straining the city’s general fund.
"It wasn’t just about how we can raise taxes, it was also how can we save tax payer money," Mayor Thomas Smits said. That group’s next meeting is scheduled for Monday, June 10, in the City Chambers beginning at 5 p.m.
"You cannot get where we want to go, with what we’re doing in the 21st Century, with the funding level that we have right now. My [teachers and staff] are tired. I have class sizes of 30 or 40. You can’t do that, folks,” MacHale said. “I have parents who want the best for their kids, but they are seeking other opportunities.”
Senate Bill 213 is sponsored by Mike Johnston, D-Denver. It can be viewed at the Colorado General Assembly’s website (www.leg.state.co.us.).