$12.5M school question going on ballot

The Nov. 1 ballot will include a $12.5 million mill levy override question for voters living within School District 51 boundaries.

District 51 school board members decided Tuesday morning to proceed with the override question after shaving $2 million off an original proposal and adding a six-year sunset. The idea of a $14.5 million override received 52 percent support in a recent mail-in survey of active Mesa County voters and 42 percent support in a July phone poll of 400 local voters.

Superintendent Steve Schultz said the surveys helped shape the ballot language and gauge local support for an override question. Even though that support wasn’t hefty, Schultz said the 52 percent support figure from the mail-in ballot was enough to convince the board to let voters decide the question’s ultimate fate.

“Polling isn’t a vote. The vote will be completed in November. We’d be remiss not to ask the question,” he said.

The question will ask for voters to include an additional seven mills in their property tax formula, which would generate $55.72 a year for every $100,000 of a home’s assessed value. Because the question is based on mills and not a set collection amount, the amount a person pays toward the override would increase or decrease in concert with the home’s value over the six-year override period. As a result, the district would collect less than $12.5 million each year of the override if home values decrease and more than $12.5 million if home values increase or new homes are built.

The override would generate money specifically for hiring back 80 teachers, reinstituting some or all of the five school days that have been cut since 2009, expanding technology and covering anticipated funding cuts from the state. Which items would be backfilled first will be decided when the district gets more specific information about future cuts from the state, Schultz said. So far, he has heard the district may have to cut $8 million next year after cutting $28.64 million between 2009 and 2011.

“If we have to come up with another $8 million, we may have to close not one school, but several,” Schultz said. “There are lots of good ideas (from citizens for budget cuts), but none of them add up to $8 million.”

School Board member Greg Mikolai said the money generated by the override likely would cost parents less per month than steps the district may have to take if it’s budget is cut further, such as charging for transportation. Even people without children or grandchildren in the district, a demographic that includes School Board member Diann Rice, should “pay it forward,” Rice said.

“What larger burden could we leave a future generation than not having an education? I want to live in a safe and healthful community, and I want young people to be the best they can be,” she said.

Orchard Mesa resident Lori Wallick, 52, whose son starts middle school today, said she plans to vote for the override.

“I know the cuts hurt a lot of teachers. I know they’re nervous to go back (to school) because they won’t have as much help,” she said, referring to the elimination of some instructional-assistant and reading-aid jobs this year.

Tom White, a 79-year-old Grand Junction resident whose son lost his job as a teacher last year because of budget cuts but was able to fill a spot at another school this year, said it would be a detriment to the community to vote down the override. “I see statistics that say support is pretty well split, but I hope they would consider this as something essential to our future,” he said.

Not everyone agrees now is the time for an override. Gary Bailey, president of the Western Slope Conservative Alliance, said pretty much everyone who comes to alliance meetings is concerned about the override.

“We have 10.5 percent unemployment in Mesa County, and businesses and people are having a hard time making it,” Bailey, 45, said. “People don’t get to increase their revenue by making taxes go up. Everybody has had to figure out how to live with less, and I don’t see why the school district should be any different.”


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