Maggie and Peter Bierbaum, longtime residents of Larkspur, raised their two children in the Douglas County School District.
Larkspur Elementary School in the early 2000s was community-oriented, they said. The dedicated, high-quality staff changed very little. Castle Rock Middle School offered music, art and enrichment programs.
In 2009, a shift in district leadership led to several years of contention in the school district.
At the end of their son's experience at Castle View High School in 2013, his class sizes had grown and the number of credits required to graduate had decreased. The teacher turnover rate was on the rise.
“We just saw a very different character of the school system when our kids left versus when they started,” Maggie Bierbaum said. “When they started, it was premium. When they left, it felt leaner, less kind. Kids were monetized more than they were cared about.”
In April, the Bierbaums took on the role of leading the steering committee of Bright Futures for Douglas County Kids, a state registered issue committee. They, along with parent Jake Meuli, who is also on the steering committee, and hundreds of volunteers, have spent the last seven months campaigning for Ballot Issue 5A, a $40 mill levy override, and Ballot Issue 5B, a $250 million bond.
The measures would provide additional funding for the school district.
“To us,” Maggie Bierbaum said, “young people are everything. “
Their hard work paid off. Both tax measures have passed, the first time a school-funding issue has gained voter approval in Douglas County since 2006.
The latest results, posted three days after the Nov. 6 election, showed the yes votes for the mill levy coming in at 53.8 percent and at 52.2 percent for the bond. The results are unofficial, though they represent the vast majority of ballots cast.
The mill levy override will go toward teacher pay and school programs, and the bond will go toward urgent building needs, new construction, transportation, career and technical education, and security. Together, the measures mean a resident with a home valued at $470,00 will pay an additional $208 a year, or $17.33 a month.
Superintendent Thomas Tucker credits the community for the success of the measures.
"Our all-volunteer school board, donors, volunteers, support staff, teachers, administrators, all came together as a collective whole," Tucker said. "This was an entire community effort, of people from all different backgrounds, coming together supporting our 68,000 students and our over 8,100 employees."
Over the next five years, Douglas County School District needs between $152 million and $200 million to address Tier 1 items, according to an executive summary of the 2018-19 Master Capital Plan. Those items are building components that compromise school safety and risk school closure, such as a roof, fire alarm system, heating and cooling system, or generator.
A new era
When the last DCSD tax measure passed 12 years ago, the district's seniors were in kindergarten.
Ballot measures on school funding were brought before Douglas County voters in 2008 and 2011, but voters rejected them. Some community members point to the recession that hit in 2008 and a conservative majority board of education that didn't favor tax increases.
Organized campaign efforts in both years fell short, community members recall.
“It was mainly teachers trying to do the volunteer work,” said Kallie Leyba, president of Douglas County Federation, the local teachers' union. “This time around was so much more comprehensive.”
School board President David Ray added that this election, taxpayers set aside the political divisiveness.
“I think that people recognized that we had gone a long time without relying on increased revenue from taxes,” Ray said.
The momentum had been building since last November, parents and district staff say, when four new school board members — who in their campaigns promised to focus on securing additional funding — were elected. In the past year, the current board has worked to educate the community on funding challenges through public meetings and the district's website.
Les Lilly, a bus driver at the district for more than 36 years, put it simply:
“It's easy to sum up. I think it's because of the current school board that is seated,” Lilly said of the election results. “The prior school board wasn't listening.”
In April, the school board voted unanimously to hire Tucker as permanent superintendent. In former jobs as superintendent at two school districts in Ohio, Tucker was successful at helping pass every mill levy override and bond measure put on the ballot.
One of the most effective tactics in this election was disseminating information on the pros and cons of the tax measures, and how exactly students and staff would benefit, Tucker said. The district's communications department did so by creating a comprehensive brochure, hosting informational meetings and updating the district website.
"The communications department did a wonderful job of articulating what each student and staff member would receive," Tucker said. "I have to give some credit to the folks that were the boots on the ground. Hundreds of volunteers knocked on thousands of doors educating the community about our needs."
This election stood out from years past in the overwhelming support and involvement from all facets of the community, from parents to teachers to businesses to faith organizations, the Bierbaums said.
The couple alone knocked on more than 1,000 doors, they said. Committee volunteers handed out at least 30,000 door pamphlets and sent thousands of postcards to Douglas County voters. They spoke at meetings hosted by chambers of commerce and local businesses.
“I think trying to restore that sense of Douglas County as one united community behind our schools was a conscious effort,” Peter Bierbaum said. “I also think the community recognizes that the need is greater and more urgent. It's become very obvious here in 2018 compared to the needs back in 2011.”
Their grassroots organization and Douglas County Parents, which formed in 2013 to address district needs, were instrumental in public outreach. Both groups recruited hundreds of parents and community members to help educate the roughly 70 percent of residents without children in the district.
“We have a community that is a lot more informed about education in Douglas County and the unique challenges that we face,” said Jason Virdin, spokesman for Douglas County Parents.
Leading up to the election, the organization hosted meetings in public spaces and private homes, posted to social media and canvassed.
The school board's immediate priorities are compensation adjustments, building repairs and mental health, Ray said.
Of the mill levy override funds, $9 million will go toward school-level funding, including special education, gifted and talented programs and career- or trade-focused programming; $8 million toward charter schools; $6 million toward allocating a counselor to all elementary schools and lowering the rate at middle and high schools from one counselor per 350 students to one counselor per 250 students; and $17 million toward pay gaps.
Inequities in teacher pay across county lines have made it difficult for the district to attract and retain quality teachers, officials say. The average teacher salary for the 2017-18 school year at Douglas County School District was $53,080, according to the Colorado Department of Education. That's less than several neighboring districts.
At a board of education meeting at 6 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Wilcox Building, 620 Wilcox St., Castle Rock, district staff will recommend to the school board compensation adjustments for all employees, including licensed teachers and classified positions, such as bus drivers and teachers' aids.
Ray is hopeful that the board will approve a recommendation and adjustments will be reflected on December paychecks.
“Then,” he said, “everything else is a lot of rolling up the sleeves..."
Within the $250 million bond, $150 million will go toward Tier 1 and additional high-priority Tier 2 needs, which are building items that affect school programming, such as an athletic field.
Capital reinvestments will account for $61 million of the bond. Of that amount, an estimated $3 million to $9 million would go toward charter school safety and Tier 1 needs.
And $39 million is expected to go toward career and technical education and new construction. In the next five years, the district forecasts the need for two new bus terminals, a high school in Lone Tree and an elementary school in Parker.
On the top of the list is an F-Pod at Castle View High School, which is over capacity by 364 students. The 25,000-square-foot addition would allow the school to expand several programs, including career technical education.
A promise made
Rex Corr, principal of Castle View, witnessed the defeated tax measures in 2008 and 2011. This time around, he saw a willingness of parents to be involved and informed, he said, which made all the difference.
“Through the process of this election, I observed a groundswell of support in our parent community in the form of turnout at informational meetings, in the form of involvement in disseminating information,” Corr said. “The parent community for Douglas County schools — they were very passionate.”
The school board plans to establish an oversight committee of citizens to ensure accountability and transparency in the district's use of the additional funds. It is incumbent for Tucker to be a "great steward of taxpayers' dollars," he said.
"That’s a promise I made to the county and I will continue to uphold," Tucker said. "Our community will know where every penny is being spent.”
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