Where does the Eagle County School District go following the November election?
The 2023 election produced mixed results for the district with voters passing a bond but not a mill levy override
The Eagle County School District’s requests to voters in the November 2023 election produced mixed results as voters rejected a mill levy override but approved a bond issue.
The ballot questions were an attempt by the district to address local challenges relating to employee retention, affordable housing, early childhood education, school safety and more as the state funding model continues to come up short of school district needs.
“The educational funding model in Colorado is broken, and the only way for us to make these positive strides forward is through mill levy overrides and bonds,” wrote Eagle County School District Superintendent Philip Qualman in a statement following the election.
The funding model’s impact on schools
Andrew Jones — who works as a Battle Mountain High School teacher, Berry Creek Middle School basketball coach, and serves as a member of the Eagle County Education Association executive team — said he was initially perplexed by the passage of one measure and the failure of the other.
“I think there is a misunderstanding by many for how funds are made for schools and then how those are allocated within the schools,” Jones said.
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Karen Kolibaba, a mild/moderate special education teacher at Red Hill Elementary School, also said her initial reaction was surprise: “I had expected that either both ballot initiatives would fail or succeed.”
“Statewide we are drastically underfunded compared to most states and this is why we need to ask the local community so often for funding,” Jones said. “Those who were adamantly opposed to funding education, so far as to print and send mailers that had misinformation, are beyond me. We barely can attract teachers to one of the most attractive parts of the country, and it typically ties to teacher pay than if they make it past the pay, it is the housing that ultimately kills the dream of teaching here.”
Plus, it’s a problem that is not going away.
“It is going to be interesting in the next few years when we have a large portion of our teacher workforce retire,” Jones said. “There are not as many young teachers in this district compared to when I moved here 10 years ago, and this is troubling when it comes to sustainment.”
For educators, the impact of this lack of funding is something they deal with on a day-to-day basis.
“The lack of funding keeps our buildings short-staffed, handcuffs class options and at the end of the day, hurts students,” Jones said.
Specifically, Jones listed that being short-staffed makes it stressful to take a personal day — particularly as the guest teacher shortage means other teachers in the building have to step up and cover classes — and makes it difficult to know who to reach out to with classroom problems, to address varying student needs due to trouble finding paras, to keep up with maintenance issues, to maintain extracurricular activities with challenges finding coaches and transit and more.
Kolibaba noted that the lack of state funding also impacts her daily experience: “Primarily, I don’t always have the resources that I would need in order to be the most impactful teacher that I can be,” she said.
On a broader scale, it has also meant a “reduced applicant pool,” Kolibaba said.
“There are times that our schools are not able to hire the most fully qualified candidates. This impacts student growth and achievement. Continually hiring new educators and onboarding them to the curricular resources and programs we use takes significant time and energy from the staff that remains,” she added.
Kelli Adrian has been a teacher in the district for five years and is currently working at Gypsum Creek Middle School. In these five years, she’s seen good teachers leave every year in every single building she’s worked in.
“I have had to start over with a brand new team every year. This year was no exception,” Adrian said.
“(We’re) losing teachers because we’re understaffed, we’re overworked. (We’re) losing teachers because we’re not paying a competitive wage, losing teachers because they couldn’t find housing, they couldn’t find a place to live, so they withdrew their acceptance of the job.”
On the local level, the district will be looking forward based on its recent success and failure in the Eagle County election to address the challenges felt by educators as best as it can.
Building on the bond success
Eagle County voters narrowly approved — with 52% support and 46% opposition — the district’s request to increase its debt by $100 million for various capital projects.
At the Wednesday, Nov. 16 Board of Education meeting, Qualman said that the funds generated from the bond will allow the district to do “some very impressive work to address some of our biggest needs.”
“These funds will help us to pursue various improvements to our facilities and move forward with a Gypsum Early Learning Center. These funds will also help us to continue to build additional workforce housing to help us to attract and retain our staff,” Qualman wrote in his election statement.
In addressing educators’ needs, Kolibaba noted that the additional affordable housing “will hopefully keep some of our educators in our community.”
Plus, she hopes that her school “will benefit from improvements to our playground to make it more inclusive so all students can play and enjoy themselves.”
Adrian said that she was “excited” 5B passed, specifically because there is an immense need for an early learning center down valley.
“Pre-K education is so critical to a child’s success in school, and I’m really happy that we are able to take the existing Pre-Ks out of the elementary schools because we’re also over capacity at Gypsum (Elementary) and at Red Hill (Elementary),” Adrian said, adding that removing these preschoolers will give “breathing room,” including more room for interventionists and specialists.
Qualman said Wednesday it is “also ready and looking forward to investing some additional dollars into school safety and facility security.”
In an email to Vail Daily, Qualman wrote that the passage of the bond but not the mill levy demonstrated one thing.
“It’s easier to pass ballot questions in the era of TABOR when they include language ‘without raising taxes,'” he wrote. (5B, the bond issue question, started with the phrase: “without imposing any new tax.”)
Now that it’s passed, the next step for the district will be to begin the process of selling municipal bonds. On Wednesday, Qualman said this process would likely begin in the first quarter of 2024, “as we anticipate some advantageous changes in interest rates.”
Sandy Farrell, the district’s chief operating officer, said the administration has already begun preparing.
“As we move forward into this next quarter, we’re going to be spending the majority of our time prepping what we call an official statement, which is really our credit application that goes out to anyone interested in purchasing bonds,” Farrell said.
Specifically, in discussing how the bond relates to its progress on employee housing, Farrell said there are a few action items in the pipeline. This includes beginning construction on IK Bar property in Gypsum — where it hopes to construct 20 to 50 homes as well as eventually, an Early Learning Center — as well as beginning the installation of development infrastructure at Maloit Park, which could eventually result in around 138 homes.
Plus, the district will need to look at “securing additional funding so we’re able to maximize the developments,” Farrell said.
“Even though we have the $100 million bond that was passed, the price of the projects to build out (and) get up to 50 homes in Gypsum and 138 in Maloit Park, it’s not enough to fund all of that.”
Looking ahead, Farrell said it will be “key to get the infrastructure in and get as many built as possible, but then look for other funding mechanisms to do the vertical building,” adding that it could look similar to how it financed the Miller Flats employee housing in Edwards.
There, the district financed construction using certificates of participation, which will ultimately allow it to be self-funded through rental revenues. It expects these certificates to be paid off in less than 30 years. This also means there’s “no burden to the taxpayers,” Farrell said.
Mill levy failure
The district’s proposed mill levy override — which asked voters if property taxes could be increased by $3.5 million in 2024 — was narrowly defeated last week with 51% voting against the ask and 48% supporting it.
“I am a little upset that we couldn’t get 5A to pass because that was around retaining quality educators,” Adrian said. “We are struggling with an inability to retain teachers, mostly because other districts are paying better or it’s not affordable to live here. And 5A would have allowed us to be competitive, to have a salary that’s competitive with other school districts.”
In addition to helping with retaining and recruiting, the ballot question sought to bring in additional funds to help with enhancing safety and security; providing support services (including mental health supports); and maintaining diverse programming including art, music technology and physical education.
Adrian said that the need for counselors and more interventionists is acutely felt as students recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We need to remember that a lot of our students lost family members. And I don’t know how much we actually paused to acknowledge that,” she said.
“That was another thing that 5A could have supported was having more counselors in schools, having more interventionists to overcome the academic piece that students lost when they were learning from home.”
Adrian added that having these additional supports in schools “contribute to a healthier school system and healthier students, students who are confident, students who can do well in school and feel successful.”
Looking ahead, the district will seek different ways to support these various initiatives.
“While the community did not vote in favor of the mill levy override, we will continue to find a path forward to support our staff and students,” Qualman wrote in his election statement.
Specifically, Qualman wrote to Vail Daily that this path would include working with representatives from the Eagle County Education Association in the annual negotiations process to “see if it is still possible to improve compensation for employees with the failure of 5A.”
Last year, the negotiation process resulted in an agreement that brought the starting salary for certified staff above $50,000. The negotiation teams from the district and teacher’s union met for their first meeting of the year on Tuesday, Nov. 14, and will continue to meet through the spring.
This process will also determine if there are additional levels the district can pull with next year’s budget to attempt to fund the items listed in 5A, Qualman noted.
Additionally, there is some hope on the horizon with the state funding model as Gov. Jared Polis’ preliminary budget includes a proposal to “fully fund” education by eliminating the budget stabilization factor, which has allowed the state to withhold $10 billion in school funding since 2009. This could help the district move forward, even with the mill levy failing to pass.
Qualman referred to this preliminary budget as “favorable,” but acknowledged it still has a long way to go before being finalized.
Still, it shows the priorities are moving in the right direction.
“Ending the Budget Stabilization Factor is a top priority. It appears the Governor and the Legislature are starting to understand this,” Qualman wrote. “The state needs to understand what adequate funding looks like around the country and work to make Colorado competitive.”
Jones said that in his 10 years in the district, “this is the first ballot measure that the community did not support.”
“The support is usually great,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic also shifted the conversation around education and educator support — at first, for the better, Adrian said.
“I felt seen, I felt appreciated. People were more than ever so grateful for teachers and what they do, not only for the students but for the community,” Adrian said. “During COVID lockdowns, a lot of people felt that kids really bond with their teachers … and that lack of attachment was felt.”
However, once school returned in person, things shifted, Adrian said.
“It’s like everybody forgot this war cry around education and how valuable education is to not only the students but to the communities as a whole,” she said.
“And education got roped into this political conversation that it really has nothing to do with. We’re not indoctrinating children. We’re educating them. We are trying to make them aware of math, science and reading. We want them to be good readers.”
Getting brought into this national dialogue, “that cry for what teachers do got lost,” Adrian said.
And the impact educators have seen is similar to that of the lack of funding: “They’ve left the profession. They’ve gone to other school districts. Nobody wants to be told that they’re doing the wrong thing when your heart’s in the right place,” Adrian said.
At the end of the day, Adrian emphasized that “this is public education; we need the public support to make it happen.”
“The state of Colorado is billions of dollars in debt to the school system and the only way we can get the funding we need to be effective is through our local community,” Adrian said. “And we support the community in return. When a community has good schools, home values rise, the economy rises. People need to realize that public education requires public support. And if you’re not willing to support it, then it struggles.”
For Jones, he invites community members opposing these measures “to talk with a teacher that they know and hear what’s going on.”
“I also invite all of the naysayers toward education into my classroom. Please come in, see what our daily work lives entail and then make your decision,” Jones said. “I have yet to hear a person ever say, ‘Teachers get paid enough.’ It’s always, ‘You don’t get paid enough.’ If that is true, then why are we still fighting for money?”