Crested Butte Council supports school district ballot issue

Sees school as an economic driver
Representatives of the group actively supporting a mill levy override to increase property taxes for the local school district spent an hour answering questions from the Crested Butte Town Council on Monday, October 6. They ultimately came away with a letter of support from the council for the ballot issue.

Ian Billick and Kristi Hargrove provided the council with the current district financial situation, which is centered on fewer state dollars coming in, more teacher cuts every year, and an annual dip in district reserve funds. In the last four years, the school district has laid off two teachers a year and seen $2 million annually cut from state support. “The idea is that we need a local solution to the problem,” explained Billick. “The override will generate up to $2.5 million a year. The school board could reduce that amount and thus the mill levy if the state began funding the district again or if other revenues were coming into the district.” “At the state level, it is obvious that the funding won’t be solved anytime soon,” added Hargrove. “Lots of school districts across Colorado are pursuing similar local measures.” Hargrove pointed out that K-12 funding still accounted for a big portion of the state’s overall budget. Students in the Gunnison school district receive about $7,000 annually per student, compared to the national average of about $10,000 per student. She said more than 40 percent of the state budget went to K-12 education. “It is hard in a small state budget,” she said. “This district is not asking for the money to make the leap to a super-elite school that will spend tons and tons of money on the students,” she continued. “This is about sustainability and bringing back the things the district has lost.” Hargrove said the district was fortunate to have received some private grants from individuals and organizations such as the Rotary Club and the PTA to fund projects like STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) programs. Councilperson Jim Schmidt pointed out the pitfall of the TABOR amendment in Colorado, which limits the state budget through population growth and inflation. Schmidt asked about the recent embezzlement case against former district IT director Canon Leatherwood, who siphoned off hundreds of thousands of school dollars during the last building project. “It wasn’t caught for a long time and I have been asked, ‘Why should we think that school finances are watched better now?’” “The fact is that the school did catch [Leatherwood] and took action immediately,” responded Billick. “The money will be reimbursed through insurance and he will serve 12 years in prison. The problem with those funds is that it is a symptom of the issue. You cut and cut and you end up with fewer people watching what is going on.” “Leatherwood was pretty slick and he was good at it,” said Hargrove. “He took advantage of the situation but he was discovered. The internal controls have changed quite a bit as a result of that incident.” When asked by councilperson Glenn Michel about the impacts of the proposed Amendment 68, which is meant to take some gambling revenues and funnel them to schools across the state, Hargrove said she had little faith in the idea. “Even if it worked just like they say, it would only address maybe 10 percent of the state problem. If we did end up with some of that money, the mill levy could be lowered.” Mayor Aaron Huckstep asked about the same situation with tax revenues from legalized marijuana being directed to schools. Billick said that money was geared toward capital projects in school districts and it is not distributed evenly across Colorado. Given recent facility expansions in the district, the likelihood of the area seeing any of that money was very low. Councilperson Chris Ladoulis said the likelihood of any mill levy being reduced was almost zero once passed. But Billick said the school board is even now refinancing some bonds to save money and the idea is to lower the tax rate as a result. Billick and Hargrove described the $2.5 million as a shock absorber that could be adjusted as more money came in from other sources or as more money was needed. They said the goal of passing a $2.5 million issue was so that voters wouldn’t be asked year after year to approve more taxes. “It is very clear and was very important to the citizen’s committee to have the ability to reduce the mill levy if things changed,” emphasized Hargrove. “Several people in my neighborhood have moved here recently in part because of the good schools,” said Michel. “Having a good school is an economic driver. It attracts people to the community.” “I think communities that invest in schools have a significant economic advantage,” agreed Billick. “Our school’s performance is off the charts. One reason is our math scores but last year the board had to cut the math intervention teacher. And they’ve cut the elementary tech program that will have an impact. Testing on every student will soon be done on computers and our computers are getting old and our kids aren’t being taught keyboarding skills.” “We have been operating really well really lean, but that is no longer sustainable,” said Hargrove. “It’s at a point that cuts will impact the classrooms more and more.” Later in the meeting, the council agreed to provide a letter of support for the mill levy override instead of passing a resolution of support, given the timing with the election that will begin next week when ballots are mailed to voters.

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