Much hinges on LPS tax vote

Ballot Issue 4C could determine trajectory of high-ranking district

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With ballots out and Election Day looming, volunteers are going all-out for Ballot Issue 4C, which would raise property taxes in a bid to stave off major cuts to Littleton Public Schools.

“We need every vote,” said Erin Weaver, a parent of two LPS students who is co-chairing the citizens’ committee drumming up support for 4C. “If this doesn’t pass, it’s going to affect every single student.”

4C calls for a mill levy override that aims to raise $12 million in its first year, hoping to offset slashed state funding and increased expenses largely related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

If the measure fails, advocates and district officials say cuts could be wide-ranging.

“Everything is on the table,” said Superintendent Brian Ewert. “Cutting $12 million from our budget will require some pain. It won’t just be one thing.”

‘The most depressing committee’

Weaver and her fellow co-chair Erin Christensen, also a parent of two LPS students, also sit on the district’s financial advisory committee, and say the group is looking at a long list of possible cuts.

Cutting 10 days from the school year could net $6 million in savings. The list of other possible cuts to get to $12 million is long.

Laying off staff. Cutting teacher pay. Slashing funding for Options High School, which serves students who don’t do well in traditional schools. Scaling back the Voyager program, which provides concurrent enrollment in Arapahoe Community College. Requiring families to pay for bus transportation. Eliminating subsidies that cover costs for student athletes.

The committee won’t make its final recommendations to the school board until December, Weaver said, once the outcome of the 4C vote is known.

“It’s the most depressing committee in the district,” she said.

Rising costs, rising cuts

The effects of the pandemic on the district have been wide-ranging, Ewert said.

The state legislature made $3.3 billion in statewide spending cuts in May as the pandemic wreaked havoc on state revenue, which trickled down into $18.5 million in cuts to LPS — cuts that are $9.4 million larger than last year’s state funding shortfall under the so-called “negative factor” that has shortchanged LPS to the tune of $157 million since 2009.

The district, which serves roughly 15,000 students and has a total general fund budget for the current school year of $177.8 million, was able to offset some of the cuts with a one-time infusion of $6.6 million in federal funds earmarked for pandemic-related expenses.

The gap between the state cuts and the federal funds this year is exacerbated by a further $4.2 million in cuts already approved by the LPS school board last fall, caused by rising costs and stagnant state funding, spurring the district to eliminate 17 positions.

The district is facing a wide range of rising costs, including the cost of running the TOPS program, a fully-online alternative to in-person learning that will run at least through the end of this school year and could top $5 million in expenses.

Meanwhile, per-pupil funding is falling, as district enrollment is down from initial projections this year by about 700 students, as many families have pulled preschoolers from the district and others switch to homeschooling.

The district will likely dig into its reserve funds this year, Ewert said.

Marijuana tax revenue has done little for the district, he said, and currently funds just one position: a substance abuse counselor.

By the numbers

The district cannot expect the state to solve its budget woes, Ewert said, especially after recent failures of several statewide measures that sought in part to boost education funding. In fact, he said, there’s also no guarantee the state won’t deepen the cuts further.

District voters approved a record $298 million bond for school construction in 2018, though Ewert stressed that money by law cannot be used for any other purpose.

Currently, district residents pay a mill levy rate of 59.266 toward LPS, or $423.75 per year per $100,000 of home value.

If approved, 4C would raise the mill levy on homes in the district by 6 mills in its first year, with the option to increase by one mill per year, up to a maximum of 11. The 6-mill increase would be $42.58 per year per $100,000 of home value.

That means on a home valued at $500,000, the measure would increase the annual taxes paid toward LPS from $2,118.75 to $2,331.65.

District voters have a long history of stepping up for school funding, Ewert said, approving every mill levy override and bond issue in recent history.

A tougher sell

4C, however, could be a tougher sell. Though a pre-pandemic public opinion poll found 58% of respondents supported the idea of a mill levy override, the number dipped to 52% in a followup poll in July.

Christensen, the co-chair of the citizens’ committee, said she has heard people in the community say the midst of a pandemic that has caused a spike in unemployment and other hardships is a bad time to ask for a tax increase.

“They’re right, it’s not a good time,” she said. “But this is a public school district, and we have to ask the public for their input. Do you want to pony up extra taxes right now, or see the impact on families and property values if the district doesn’t stay strong?”

Among those skeptical of the measure is Kirk Weber, who wrote the counterpoint statement to the measure in the county’s blue book voter guide.

Weber, who retired this year as a technical adviser for financial accounting for the Colorado Department of Education, said 4C is overwrought.

“It’s too much, too soon,” Weber said. “We’re jumping the gun here. They don’t even have a final count of student enrollment this year, and there could be more federal stimulus money to come. Let’s see where this pandemic is going before we ask people for more money just because we can.”

In his write-up for the blue book, Weber said while the negative factor — the shortfall in funding below that called for by Amendment 23 — has cut $157 million from the district since 2009, a local mill levy override around the same time has raised more than $220 million in the same period.

‘This is what it’s going to take’

Ewert, the superintendent, said while he is grateful for the prior mill levy override, its benefit has been slowly consumed by rising personnel costs.

Weber also said that LPS enjoys among the highest teacher salaries in the state, and could stand to make further pay cuts.

“Sure, the state doesn’t have the money, but that doesn’t mean local taxpayers do either,” Weber said. “Everyone’s making painful cuts to get through this.”

Littleton’s teacher pay is among the highest in the state because the district has so many long-term teachers, said Amanda Crosby, the head of the district’s teacher’s union.

“Our starting pay is not at the top by any stretch,” Crosby said. LPS starting pay for teachers is a little over $41,000 a year. “If you stick around, Littleton pays relatively well, and that’s among the reasons we retain such high-quality teaching staff. We don’t want to lose people mid-career who decide they could do better elsewhere.”

Ewert said 4C will determine the district’s trajectory for a long time to come.

“If you want us to maintain as we are, if you want us to continue to have the best and brightest teachers,” Ewert said, “this is what it’s going to take.”

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