Charter schools have role in DCSD tax conversation

$250 million bond measure would set aside $9 million

Posted 9/24/18

Of the Douglas County School District’s 91 schools, 21 are charter schools. The seven charter schools built before 2007 need about $7.7 million for critical building repairs that risk school …

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Charter schools have role in DCSD tax conversation

$250 million bond measure would set aside $9 million

Posted

Of the Douglas County School District’s 91 schools, 21 are charter schools.

The seven charter schools built before 2007 need about $7.7 million for critical building repairs that risk school closure, according to Superintendent Thomas Tucker. For similar repairs, the district’s neighborhood, magnet and alternative schools built prior to 2007 — the vast majority — need $121 million.

In November, voters living within the district will decide on two tax measures that would provide additional funding for DCSD. A bond would address urgent capital needs, security improvements, information technology and transportation. A mill levy override would go toward teacher pay and programming.

About 20 percent of the district’s 68,000 students attend charter schools. While these schools would receive an equal share of a $40 million mill levy override, they would only get up to $9 million of a $250 million bond. That’s about 3.6 percent of the funds.

Douglas County Board of Education President David Ray explains:

“The bond is equitable, not equal, meaning that it goes to where the greatest need is. My assumption is that the charter schools are newer than neighborhood schools — even neighborhood schools don’t get considered for capital improvements until they’ve been around for six to 10 years. The charters, because they are new, don’t necessarily have some of those needs.”

Built in 1996, Academy Charter School in Castle Rock is the district’s oldest charter school. The average age of charter schools is eight years, according to Rich Cosgrove, chief operations officer at the district. The average age of the district’s neighborhood, magnet and alternative schools is 23 years.

In Colorado, a charter school is defined as a public school operated by a group of parents, teachers and/or community members as a semi-autonomous school of choice within a school district, according to the Colorado Department of Education. It operates under a contract between members of the charter school and the local school board.

Charter schools receive an equal share of per-pupil revenue, or money per student from the state for operating expenses, capital reserve and risk insurance, according to the Department of Education. Whereas school districts finance their facilities using property taxes, mill levies and local bonds, charter schools generally do not receive a proportionate share of these funds and must tap into per-pupil revenue for facility needs, the Colorado League of Charter Schools reports.

Five years ago, Aspen View Academy opened in Castle Rock. Abby Remington’s 6-year-old son currently attends the charter school, which is a two-minute walk from the family’s home. Remington likes the independent control of charter schools, which are typically governed by a board of directors. But she’s noticed the economics at charter schools are different than at neighborhood schools.

Unlike neighborhood schools, Aspen View Academy doesn’t have buses or offer transportation services, which is a challenge for some parents, Remington said. Still, she supports the tax measures, even with less money going to charter schools.

“I think it’s important we fund our schools properly for property value and to make sure our kids are getting a proper education,” Remington said. “If it’s a more expensive place to live, you need to pay people more.”

About the measures

At an Aug. 21 school board meeting, the school board unanimously approved putting Tucker’s recommendation for a bond and mill levy override package on the Nov. 6 ballot. Should voters in the county approve the tax increases, a homeowner with a home valued at $470,00 would pay an additional $208 a year, or $17.33 a month.

Ballot measures on school funding were brought before Douglas County voters in 2008 and 2011, but voters rejected them. The last time Douglas County passed a local bond or mill levy override was in 2006.

Lack of funding has caused disparities in teacher pay across county lines and buildings in need of $303 million to $403 million in repairs, according to DCSD’s Master Capital Plan.

To determine how much of the bond would be allocated to charter schools, the district used a similar process to what it uses with neighborhood schools. Last spring, the district’s Planning and Construction department collaborated with charter schools to assess capital needs, Tucker said in an email correspondence. Over the summer, the department visited every charter school facility built before 2007 to “assess and confirm their most urgent capital needs,” Tucker said.

“The district’s director of safety and security also visited each DCSD charter school to assess physical security needs,” Tucker said.

District staff determined a range of $3 million to $9 million to address Tier 1 and security needs in charter schools.

“A range of estimated costs for this work was established since district facilities staff does not manage the construction and maintenance of charter schools, and does not have complete familiarity of manufactured products and the condition of building components,” Cosgrove said in an email correspondence. “Detailed project budgets will be established once design begins with architects and engineers to confirm the scopes of work.”

District needs are outlined in the district’s comprehensive Master Capital Plan, which is updated yearly and available to the public at https://bit.ly/2xjkeLF.

Capital needs are prioritized based on a tiered system. A Tier 1 need, for example, would be a broken elevator or fire alarm. Tier 2 needs are specific to programming, such as a high school athletic field or snowplow trucks. Tier 3 needs are ancillary components of a building, such as the paint on the walls or furniture. The lowest needs, Tier 4, are aesthetics such as landscaping.

Assessing needs

At charter schools in Douglas County, Tier 1 needs are fire alarm systems and heating and cooling units, according to Tucker.

The age and condition of charter schools across the county varies. STEM School Highlands Ranch opened in 2011, but it occupies an older building previously used for commercial business. The K-12 school has $141,000 worth of Tier 1 needs, according to the 2018 Master Capital Plan.

American Academy charter school has three campuses, one in Castle Pines and two in Parker. The oldest of the three, the Castle Pines K-8 school was built in 2009. It needs an HVAC support system replacement, Executive Director Erin Kane said.

“That is our only Tier 1 need. Our other two buildings are newer,” she said. “In terms of capital needs, our district’s buildings are very much in need and some of our older charter school buildings are very much in need … I certainly do have the expectation that out of the bond money American Academy will see some safety upgrades, along with all the other buildings in the district, charter and neighborhood.”

Kane recognizes that neighborhood schools have substantial facility needs.

“I know the needs are significant and I support the bond money going to address the capital needs of our neighborhood schools,” she said. “I strongly believe we are all in this together and what is best for our neighbors is best for us, because we are all in it for the kids of Douglas County.”

Ray emphasized that this is the first time in the district’s history that the school board has decided to share a bond with charter schools. Typically, charters are built by outside companies, not the district.

“I think this is a historical moment that says for the first time charters are having some of that revenue shared for their needs as well,” Ray said. “I think there is a lot of chatter that says this board is anti-charter and I think that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

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