Vail Daily column: Crafting the right proposal
Last Wednesday, the Eagle County Schools’ Board of Education voted unanimously to place two questions on the November ballot. The first, a mill levy override, would provide ongoing funds for things like recruiting and retaining quality teachers and staff, reducing class size and restoring key programs like art, music, physical education and counseling. The second, a bond, would provide funds for improving safety and security systems across the district as well as some needed building expansions and improvements in some of our oldest and most crowded schools.
While I am prohibited by law for advocating for or against anything on the ballot, I have a responsibility to inform the community.
Both questions would require approval from the voters and would come with a tax increase. All the funds would stay in Eagle County, none of it would be used for senior district administration (including me), and a citizen oversight committee would oversee them. The mill levy override sunsets after seven years and requires voter approval to continue.
Without getting into too many details here, you can learn more about the district’s ballot questions by visiting the Eagle County Schools website at http://www.eagleschools.net and clicking on the “2016 Election Initiatives” page.
The process for designing these measures is time-consuming, detailed and intentional.
On the mill levy override, for ongoing costs, we started by looking at the district’s current and future needs. It’s no secret to anyone that we’ve struggled attracting and retaining quality teachers and staff here for decades — but this problem was further compounded by the cumulative $40 million in cuts the district has felt from the state as an ongoing result of the Great Recession.
Per state law, school districts cannot collect locally (via a mill levy override) more than 25 percent of total program funding, plus a local cost of living adjustment. Eagle County Schools currently collects $8,061,630, which equates to 13.8 percent of total program funding. If the 2016 mill levy override passes, Eagle County Schools will collect $16,061,630 of the $17,728,880 permitted by law, which equates to 22.6 percent.
By comparison, some districts (places like Aspen, Roaring Fork, Boulder and Summit County) have been at or near the 25 percent mark for years.
Why didn’t we ask for the maximum amount? As part of our process, we met with an influential group of community members to gather feedback about the initial proposals. While they clearly understood the need to improve school funding through local means, they advised us to stay under the maximum ask in order to lower the tax impact on our community. After reviewing and critically analyzing the district’s needs we lowered the proposed amount from $10.1 million, the maximum we could have asked for, to $8 million. This money will make a tremendous difference to our local funding needs, but keeps us under the cap amount.
The Board of Education also made some key commitments about where the funds would go. In a resolution, the board voted to provide fully 50 percent of the funds to recruiting and retaining teachers and staff and another 25 percent to reducing class size and restoring programs. The board knew that transparency about expenditures was a key point and took steps to be clear about where it would be going, if successful.
The board also made a key agreement with the Eagle County Charter Academy for sharing these funds. The Charter Academy is the only charter school in the community which is part of the Eagle County School District and we have always shared funding equally, though this is not required by law. The agreement clearly spells out that the school will have equal access to the mill levy override funds, and they must spend and account for them the same way all other district schools would.
On the bond side, the district had almost a year-long Facilities Master Planning process that evaluated the needs at every building and conducted detailed demographic studies looking at student enrollment patterns and population growth trends across the county.
This research and planning process identified key projects, such as improving safety and security systems in all the buildings, improving Eagle Valley High School to accommodate its booming enrollment and adding science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) and career/technical programs to the school.
We also held community meetings to get feedback on potential changes to schools and took this into account. The final tally of needs in the Facilities Master Plan came to over $200 million in projects and improvements. Again, we worked over our plan, removed several projects, and evaluated “wants” to “needs,” resulting in a slimmer bond proposal of $144 million.
The Board of Education plays a key role in these decisions. As representatives of the community, they act as the voice and conscience of all our towns. Ultimately, they had the largest voice in what the proposals included (or did not) and they should get the credit for work to minimize the tax impact to the greatest extent possible.
For the district leadership, our responsibility was in working to craft proposals that were the right fit for the community and providing clear and consistent communications to ensure that everyone was well informed throughout the process. While I’m confident we’ve done our due diligence on that front, we’ll have to wait until November to see if the ballot measures are successful. The voters will have the final word on them. Until then, I encourage you to become informed on these issues and contact me directly if you have any questions or feedback.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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