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Vail Valley Voices: Foes confuse school tax issue

Butch MazzucaVail, CO, Colorado

Ballot Issue 3B is about more than just another public entity asking for a tax increase. It’s a multipart matter that brings together questions regarding how public entities are funded, if the Eagle County School District is spending our tax dollars wisely and whether passage of this mill levy is really necessary. Unfortunately, certain opponents have chosen to convolute an already complex debate by making a number of misleading statements and comparing apples to oranges in order to sway public opinion. To begin with, the section of the TABOR notice referencing 3B (the “blue book” voters will receive in the mail) is patently dishonest. It begins: “Don’t be fooled! Despite the deceptive language of this Mill Levy Override ballot proposal, this is a permanent PROPERTY TAX INCREASE!”Nowhere does the official ballot language imply, suggest or intimate that this is not a permanent property tax increase. I mean, come on, why was it necessary for the measure’s opponents to mislead and use unhelpful terms such as, “don’t be fooled” and “deceptive language?” When 3B’s opponents’ operative statement is so blatantly misleading, it should be a warning to voters. Meanwhile, if citizens have legitimate arguments against its passage, they should express them clearly and without spin. Voters want honest debate.For example, the school district has been criticized because its ACT scores are lower than the national average. However, what the critics failed to reveal was that in most of these United States, only college-bound kids take the ACT, whereas in Colorado all students are required to take the test. I again ask rhetorically, why was it necessary to mislead by comparing apples to oranges? Ironically, however, this issue actually underscores the extent to which the school district has taken a proactive stance with regard to educating our kids. Several indicators, including the ACT scores, led district Superintendent Sandra Smyser to hire a team of experts review its achievement level, wherein they found the district’s curriculum wasn’t as rigorous as it could be.To redress the matter, the district ended the trimester system and returned to semesters, requiring more core courses for 2011-12. They revamped the curriculum and began an extensive classroom improvement program focusing on both teacher and student performance. The result: students are now required to take yearlong classes in math, science, social studies and language arts without the gaps that occurred in the trimester system. Will these measures prove effective? We don’t know yet, but the fact the district initiated them on its own speaks volumes.In another matter that should be of great concern to the voters is that the opponents of 3B have conflated four separate issues for reasons of their own — i.e., the amount of money district actually spends per student, the accounting method used to arrive at that amount, how the district compares with other school districts, and the amount of money needed to educate our kids. An 825-word commentary doesn’t allow for a detailed explanation of the above, but suffice it to say that comparing apples to oranges is devious if done purposely and downright slipshod if done inadvertently. Crunching numbers for a public entity can give one a headache. Nevertheless, according to the Colorado Department of Education, the Eagle County School District ranks 87th out of 178 school districts in operating revenue per pupil. And the one statistic that cannot be misrepresented is if the mill levy increase is not passed, school funding will be reduced to no better than the 2007 level.Having run a successful enterprise for more than 20 years and employing perhaps 800 to 1,000 people over time, I’m familiar with P&L statements and balance sheets. But I’m not a public entity accountant, so I asked the district’s CFO, Phil Onofrio, to explain why the district is different from other governmental entities and why it needs this mill levy increase. He explained it this way: Other governmental entities that are funded with property taxes are “de-Bruced,” and when the real estate market recovers, their revenues will increase. The school district will also realize those same revenue benefits, but unlike many other public entities, when that occurs, the school district’s funding from the state will decrease due to the way state law stipulates how public schools are funded. Therefore, an improving real estate market does not really help the district. We can discuss the various funding mechanisms as they relate to the district and what should or should not be included when ascertaining the amount of money actually spent on public education in Eagle County. However, the broader concern boils down to three primary issues: How well the district educates our kids, is the district spending our tax dollars wisely and should the mill levy be rejected, necessitating teacher layoffs. This issue is contentious, but what’s really germane vis–vis the tax dollars is recognizing the district’s willingness to engage in programs of self-evaluation and continual improvement. And while the Eagle County School District remains an imperfect entity, the attitude, desire, intent and need as evinced by objective measurement warrant this proposal’s passage.Quote of the Day: “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” — Thomas JeffersonButch Mazzuca is an Edwards resident.


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