CASTLE ROCK, Colo. — Douglas County residents voted down two ballot measures that would have provided more funding for the district’s schools.
Ballot question 5A was a $60 million per year mill levy override that will come in the form of higher property taxes for homeowners.
The money would have been used for teacher and staff pay raises in an attempt to make Douglas County more competitive with other school districts in the area.
Ballot question 5B, meanwhile, was a $450 million bond measure that would have been used to build three new elementary schools, expand two existing middle schools and maintain and improve the district’s 111 current buildings.
Bonds are loans the district takes out on the taxpayers' behalf that are paid off over time. Because the measure failed, voters in the district will see a decrease in their taxes.
“It was really disappointing. But on the other hand, we got all the way to 49.3%,” said district superintendent Erin Kane.
From the start, Kane and the DCSD school board knew that getting the ballot questions passed would be a challenge; a poll from New Bridge Strategy found that while three in four voters said it is extremely important to increase district salaries to retain talent, less than 39% said they would vote for a mill levy override.
That same poll showed that only 36% of those polled said they would definitely vote yes on the bond measure while 40% said they would definitely vote no and 24% said they were unsure.
Nevertheless, the district went ahead and put the questions on the ballot after a citizen advisory committee made the recommendation.
Kane doesn’t believe the decision was a mistake. Instead, she sees it as a positive sign that the district was able to garner so much support in such a short amount of time despite the polling.
We gained 10 points of support with our community in a terrible economy in just about four and a half, five months’ time. So, I think that's great momentum, I think it's a great trajectory,” she said.
Despite the ballot measures failing, the problems DCSD is facing over teacher pay and larger classrooms persist. There is a roughly $18,000 pay difference between teachers in Cherry Creek and those in Douglas County.
The district is set to receive more money this year from the state with a strong economic performance and some of that money will go to increasing salaries to keep up with inflation. However, the other districts will receive similar funding and be able to offer similar pay increases, so Kane says the pay gap will remain.
“Our teacher schedules will remain in place, our teachers will continue to be awarded more pay for their years and for their degrees. We'll continue to be able to give increases to our staff as state funding allows,” she said.
However, she expects the school board at upcoming meetings to consider placing very similar questions on the ballot as soon as next year.
She sees the biggest challenge for the district in getting the measure passed next time around will be educating voters and explaining where the money will go and how it will help their families.
“Everyone in this community wants to make sure that Douglas County continues to be an amazing school district. Everyone in this community supports our teachers and our amazing staff and Douglas County School District, and we just need to continue to work towards that,” she said.
However, former DCSD board member Kevin Leung doesn’t think the failed vote came down to a lack of voter education but rather a lack of trust in the current school board.
In the last 20 years, Leung helped work on three different bonds for the district — some successful, some unsuccessful.
He believes the district’s current political climate played a role in the ballot questions’ failure, pointing to the firing of former superintendent Corey Wise, the district’s debate over its equity policies and a recent lawsuit over the board’s potential breach of Colorado’s sunshine law all degraded voter trust over the past couple of years.
“We have the huge political firestorm this year that the other school districts do not have,” Leung said. “You don't want to come out knowing that you have a good chance to lose and then just try to throw a Hail Mary pass and hope for the best.”
Leung had spoken in front of the school board in September asking them to delay the ballot questions until that trust could be better established.
Unofficial election results show roughly two-thirds of the 22 school funding ballot measures in the state passed, according to an analysis by Chalkbeat.
With both of Douglas County’s school measures failing and voters across the state overwhelmingly supporting an income tax cut (which could lessen school funding), he worries about the damage the loss has done to the morale of students and staff in the district.
“I truly do not believe the people in this country do not support our teachers or do not believe that they deserve more money. At the end of the day, the leadership matters and who is going to be managing the money,” Leung said.
He worries that the current school board will not be able to bring the community together by next year in order to achieve a different result.
If the district does decide to put the questions on the ballot once again in 2023 for voters, he would like to see the teacher pay question reworded to better set out exactly where the money will be going.
“They need to do some soul searching and look at the real data before they do another attempt. If they do another one that fails next year that is truly going to be devastating,” Leung said.
Both Kane and Leung say the district needs more money to better support its teachers and staff. The challenge now figuring out how to convince voters to choose differently in the future.