Eagle County School District will pose two questions to voters in the November election

Eagle County School District will ask voters to consider two ballot questions this November to provide funding to tackle some of its top challenges, from housing and staffing to preschool, school safety and more.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily archive

On Wednesday, Aug. 23, Eagle County School District’s Board of Education unanimously approved two ballot questions that will appear on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Voters in the district — which encompasses not only Eagle County but also portions of Garfield and Routt counties — will be asked to approve a mill levy override as well as a bond. While each ballot measure has specific goals tied to it — from addressing school safety to recruiting and retaining quality educators — both are attempts for the district to seek additional funding.

Michelle Stecher, president of the Board of Education, said that these funding requests are necessary when considering “how underfunded Colorado is as a state with our education compared to the rest of the country.”

“We’ve tried hard to work at the state level and make change. We will continue to try to advocate for that,” Stecher said. “It’s not happening right now, and so if we want to see a difference in the quality that our students experience, it’s going to take a shift locally.”

A $100 million bond

Earlier this year, Eagle County School District Superintendent Philip Qualman said the bond question would ask if the district could take on additional debt as well as if it could increase property taxes to pay off that debt.

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The ballot question approved by the school board on Wednesday stipulates that the bond would finance $100 million worth of projects related to employee housing, safety and security improvements at local schools, early childhood education (specifically building a Gypsum Early Learning Center and expanding the Edwards Early Learning Center), as well as addressing “critical school repairs” and updating playgrounds, gyms, locker rooms and athletic facilities.

On Wednesday, Qualman spoke individually of the needs for each of these improvements.

Affordable housing, he said, is directly linked to its ability to recruit and retain quality educators.

“The lack of affordable housing really keeps us from filling the positions that we have vacant in our organization,” Qualman said. “For three years in a row now, we’re about 10% vacant, which is about 100 positions … That means every single department is short-staffed, every single school has a vacancy in some form or another, and every single offer that we put out — I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say — we are always asked if there’s affordable housing.”

With the district’s most recent affordable housing project — Miller Flats, located adjacent to Battle Mountain High School — the school district saw exactly how much the demand exceeds supply as it had 150 employees apply to enter the lottery for 37 units.

Eagle County School District/Courtesy Photo
The demand for the district’s upcoming units at Miller Flats in Edwards (pictured as a rendering here) demonstrated just how great the need is for affordable housing for educators, the superintendent reported. The district had 150 employees apply for the development’s 37 units.
Eagle County School District/Courtesy Photo

“There is a shortage of quality educators in this country. There’s an extreme shortage in this state. For us to be competitive, this is something that we can do to bring quality educators to our community,” Qualman said.

Supply and demand are similarly unmatched with early childhood education and preschool capacity, he said.

“The fact that there is funded PreK from the state at this point means that we’re going to need to increase our capacity, but the state isn’t helping us do that. So we have got to address that at both ends of the valley,” Qualman said, later pointing out that there is a “huge need” on the valley’s west end.

In addition, as every year sees “more and more violence” in schools, Qualman said he believes the district can do more to improve the safety of local schools.

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“But those things can be expensive,” he added.

For Eagle County owners of a $1 million property, if the bond was passed, their property tax would decrease by about $190 per year, Qualman reported. If the bond did not pass, their taxes would decrease by $300 per year, he added.

The reason that these situations both include a tax decrease is related to a “misconception about school district finances,” Qualman said.

“I think a lot of people think when assessed valuation has gone up, that that will mean windfall for the school district, that we would see a huge increase in funding for that,” he said.

He added that there are two reasons why this is false. The first is that is the district’s existing mill levy overrides and bonds are tied to exact dollar amounts.

“When that exact dollar amount is raised, we stop assessing. So every year, as assessed valuations slowly creep up, we reduce our mills to land on that dollar amount. So if assessed valuation jumps way up, we have to continue to reduce our mills to still land on the dollar amount we asked the community to fund,” Qualman said.

The second reason is that the state backfills the district’s budget after it receives local taxes. The result, he said, is that “as the local community supports us more, the state supports us less.”

“The result of assessed valuation going up is we’re going to drop our mills regardless of the vote on this bond question and this mill question,” Qualman said.

A $3.85 mill levy override

The second initiative, a mill levy override, asks voters if the district can increase the rate charged to homeowners for property taxes. 

In the district’s 2022-23 adopted budget, 19% of its revenue — around $17 million — came from mill levy overrides collected from property taxes. Eagle County voters approved an $8 million mill levy override in 2016 and approved the removal of its sunset clause in 2020.

In the ballot question approved by the school board on Wednesday, the district is asking voters to approve a $3.85 million mill levy override to serve four purposes:

  • Attracting and retaining quality educators and staff
  • Enhancing safety and security for schools and classrooms
  • Providing support services, including mental health support
  • Maintaining diverse programming including art, music, technology and physical education 

As with the bond question, Qualman reiterated the reason for these asks.

On recruiting and retaining staff, he commented that the increase in funding would help support increasing salaries. While the school board this spring approved salary increases for its staff members — including increasing its certified base salary to $50,500 — Qualman said the district needs to continue making increases to stay competitive with districts across the state and country.

Board member Kelly Alter commented that the recent salary increases were made in an effort to stay in the top 10% of teacher pay in Colorado.

“Our ability to continue to try to stay in that top 10% is going to be probably almost impossible because the last few years we’ve dipped into savings and we’re sort of tapped out there,” Alter said. “So we’re very much dependent on the state of Colorado with its sort of broken formula to try to be competitive. And I think that without this mill levy, we’ll have a very, very hard time next year.”

The other items in the ballot ask to provide immense value to students and staff, and in the case of mental health programming, would continue to address challenges brought on by COVID, Qualman said.

For an Eagle County property owner with a $1 million property, if passed, the mill levy override would decrease property taxes by about $250 a year. If it doesn’t pass, the taxes would decrease by $300, he reported

For the same property owner, should both the bond and mill levy override pass, taxes on the $1 million property would decrease by $140 per year as opposed to a $300 a year decrease if neither passed.

Including Stone Creek?

Eagle County is home to two charter schools: Eagle County Charter Academy, which is authorized by the local school district, and Stone Creek Charter School, which is a state-authorized charter school authorized by the Colorado Charter School Institute.

On Wednesday, several representatives of Stone Creek advocated for the school to be included in the district’s two ballot questions.

“The district is asking the voters in Eagle County to support these initiatives to improve the education opportunities for public school students. It’s time to recognize that Stone Creek students deserve the same level of support,” read Kirk Basefsky, a Stone Creek board member, speaking on behalf of the school’s head of school, John Brendza. Brendza previously served as the superintendent of the Eagle County School District from 2003 to 2007.

Brendza’s statement noted a connection between the district and charter school.

“The overwhelming majority of Stone Creek students will attend Eagle County high schools in the future. Many current Stone Creek families have students attending Eagle County schools in 2023. It’s time that Stone Creek students have the same opportunity to benefit from the taxpayers’ support as the Eagle County school students,” Basefsky read from Brendza’s statement.

Becky Gray, president of the Stone Creek board, commented that the families of Stone Creek Charter Academy also represent Eagle County voters and taxpayers.

“Together we can address the inequities of public funding and ensure that each and every public school student is provided equitable access to taxpayer dollars,” she said.

Following their comments, Qualman addressed the group from Stone Creek and said that it was a matter of timing and that the district would not include the charter school in the ballot questions.

Including Stone Creek in the ballot ask would have required a specific agreement on how collaboration would work between the school and school district, he said.

“We’re not opposed to that in the future,” Qualman said. “I would be remiss in putting a question to our voters that proposed a partnership that didn’t have the details ironed out.”

He went on to say that the “timing of the ask in relation to how long we’ve been working on this, researching this, drafting this, and getting everything ready” was mismatched.

“This is our last opportunity to get it on our ballot. It really doesn’t give us time to do the work, to collaborate, to get those specifics outlined that it would take for us to communicate clearly to our voters what we’re talking about in terms of a collaboration,” Qualman said.

With both ballot initiatives approved, now the district will begin the work to try and get the measures passed.

 “It’s a tough, tough decision, but I’m confident it’s the right ask at this time,” said Board member Ted Long, later adding that “Just because we voted to put it on the ballot, doesn’t mean it’s going to pass. This is the democratic process and I’m glad to be a part of it. I hope people realize the importance of it and I hope they thoroughly research the pros and cons, and I hope they vote their conscience.”

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