It’s all right to vote ‘Yes’ on local override and ‘No’ to Proposition 103

Is it OK to vote “No” on Proposition 103, the statewide education tax increase, and vote “Yes” on School District 51’s mill levy override?

I’ve received several emails from readers posing this question, in response to a column I wrote last Friday that criticized the $2.9 billion sales and income tax increase known as Proposition 103.

The questions posed by Sentinel readers, all of whom identified themselves as Republicans or conservatives (and many of whom are old friends and supporters), is an interesting and important one.

For reasons that are both philosophical and practical, the answer to that question is, in my view, yes. There is a very clear and legitimate, logical path that could lead one to vote against Prop. 103 and for School District 51’s override.

As to the philosophical, the founders believed, and history has proved, that the government closest to the people is best. I personally have voted for a couple of tax overrides at the local level through the years, but never once a statewide tax increase. Maybe that’s because I know how inefficient Denver is.

In any case, the old axiom about “government closest to the people” is certainly true when it comes to our schools. The current leadership of School District 51 is a committed group of reform-minded educators. In the last few years, they’ve raised standards, expanded choice and increased the graduation rate.

Think about this figure: Even while cutting nearly $30 million from its budget, the district has increased the graduation rate from 69 percent to 74 percent. I’ll be honest. I get tired of schools singing the “woe is me” blues over budget cuts. But our school district has met tough budget choices with a can-do spirit and people in District 51 have managed to do more with less — less money, more graduates.

Cue taxpayer and parental applause.

And a big reason for that is the district’s teachers. Our district has always been blessed with abundance of committed and talented educators. Nothing drives student performance more than quality instruction, and on that metric, School District 51 does it better than the most of the rest.

A quick side-bar: An important reason our local school system is forward-looking, focused and determined is because it’s in a conservative community that doesn’t tolerate ineptitude from government. It really doesn’t have a choice. No one knows better than District 51 and its employees that expectations are high in a community like ours.

All of which, of course, is not to say that School District 51 is perfect. The district itself freely admits there is still a great deal of room for improvement.

Voting to give our local schools, teachers and students additional tax dollars is a very different creature than sending $2.9 billion over five years to 100 legislators in Denver, only four of whom are accountable to us.

Here’s the practical reason it’s OK to say “Yes” to the District 51 question while voting against Proposition 103. Under the former, all of our tax dollars stay in our local schools; under the latter, our schools and our kids will only get a fraction back.

There is a long list of reasons to vote against Proposition 103, and somewhere near the top of it is the fact that, because of the arcane nature of the state’s school finance act and the general inefficiency of the state’s education bureaucracy, a huge chunk of the new taxes under Proposition 103 won’t make their way back into our classrooms. Not so in the case of the local mill levy override. The approximately $10 a month in additional property taxes that average homeowners would pay if it is approved would all stay right in the hallways of Happy Valley.

All that being the case, I don’t think many people operate under the illusion that the school district’s question is likely to pass. These are difficult economic times and many voters will simply say, “I can’t afford an additional $10-ish bucks a month.” And that’s a compelling argument in these terrible economic conditions.

But that’s the beauty of a system governed by the Taxpayers Bill of Rights. Ultimately, the voters get to decide all that. And whatever the outcome in 10 days, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if a healthy segment of our community says, with good conscience and consistency of principle, “No” to Proposition 103 and “Yes” to School District 51’s override.

Josh Penry is a former Colorado Senate minority leader and a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.


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