A poll of Douglas County voters showed that less than 40% of the community is willing to approve new funding measures for the school district in an election this November.
But an ad hoc committee formed to explore the issue thinks the school board should still try.
“We cannot guarantee that a bond in 2022 and a mill in 2022 will pass. As a matter of fact there is a significant chance that it will not,” said Brad Geiger, a committee member who presented the findings to the school board. “But if we don’t do it now, when do we?”
The 22-person Mill Bond Exploratory Committee, made up of multi-partisan members, outlined several urgent funding needs for the district, including building maintenance, expansion of schools, competitive compensation, staffing shortages and security measures.
“I’m not going to tell you that the district will fall off a cliff if we don’t find more funding in the next two years,” he said. “But I will tell you that these needs will grow, they will get worse and the impacts will affect our students, our staff and our community.”
The 2021-22 Master Capital Plan identifies between $765 million and $847 million in capital projects, including $423 million for new construction.
One of the most pressing issues Geiger identified is growth in student populations. In five years, Coyote Creek Elementary School, which serves Sterling Ranch, could be at 150% capacity and Crystal Valley will have four schools over 100% capacity, he said.
“Those kids have to go somewhere and if you think the solution is to put them in more trailers, if you want to be the district that educates its kids in double-wides, and the security risks associated, that's a decision you will have to make,” he said. “Because without additional funding, that’s where we will be.”
For the district to have a chance at passing the mill levy override or bond this year, they must come together and prioritize the issue after months of tension, the committee found.
Earlier this year, the school board majority members — Mike Peterson, Christy Williams, Kaylee Winegar and Becky Myers — were sued for allegedly breaking open meetings laws in a plot to oust Superintendent Corey Wise. They later fired Wise without cause and protests erupted throughout the district.
About two weeks later, chairperson of the Mill Bond Exploratory Committee Sandra Brownrigg said the district could be headed down a “death spiral” as a result of all the controversy.
“That's the only way we see this as feasible is if the split board can come together and help bring the community together around this issue,” said MBEC member Chris Pratt. “This is an issue that the district needs to tackle, it's not something we can wait on. Regardless of who you support on the board, and if the board can rally around that, we see a unique opportunity here to mobilize an army from both sides of a fractured community.”
The school board will vote June 21 to decide if they will notify the election authorities that there may be an initiative asking for more funding. The board doesn’t have to firmly decide on the ballot issue and its language until August 29.
“The demonstrated financial needs and commitments of the district are so significant that seeking additional funds from the voters in the near future is vital to the success of our current and future students and staff,” Geiger said.
The committee reviewed several polls to make their recommendation, including one by New Bridge Strategy. The 400-person poll, which had a margin of error of about 5% and surveyed random county voters, found that voters largely support the goals of the board, including retaining teachers and expanding schools.
However, only 39% of polled participants said they would approve added funding measures in November and 18% said they were undecided.
Fewer than 50% of those polled rated the district’s performance as either an “A” or “B” score.
District staff also conducted exit surveys after presentations from Superintendent Erin Kane about funding in the district. About 92% of respondents said they were willing to vote in favor of a mill levy override or bond.
“What this is showing is that the information, it’s not just the messaging, but the information is compelling,” said MBEC member Tania Stewart.
Board members largely agreed with the main points of the presentation without all explicitly indicating how they would vote.
“If we can focus on that message, I do believe there’s a chance for both of these initiatives,” said Board President Mike Peterson said.
Peterson added that he has met with the county’s Republican party and that “there’s some selling to be done there.” He said he believes the Democratic party is aligned with him on the issue.
Board member David Ray said he thinks if the board had to vote that night, it would be approved to move forward this year. He added he believes the board needs to find a way to listen to staff and the community to restore trust.
“It really is going to start with the 7 of us linking arms,” said board member Christy Williams, “And saying ‘Hey listen, we agree and we're going to move forward and we're going to do this together and we are happy to do it together. And while we might have disagreements elsewhere this is one place where we can say we value our kids and our teachers, all of our staff and that they deserve more and better.’”
Voters last approved a $40 million mill levy override and $250 million bond in 2018, which was dedicated to capital reinvestment, facilities, transportation and technology needs.
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