Mill-levy hike would aid curriculum, teachers

School Superintendent Stacy Houser agrees with the tax foes who say that throwing money at problems doesn’t solve them.

RE-1 SUPERINTENDENT STACY HOUSERWhat he wants to do with a proposed mill-levy increase for School District Re-1 is not to throw the money at the district’s problems, but to spend it judiciously to help retain teachers, develop a uniform curriculum, and improve students’ reading capabilities.

“You don’t throw money, that’s absolutely right,” he said. “But in anything today, when something’s broken, it takes money to fix it. But you need to follow a proven plan or a proven strategy.”

To that end, the district school board voted in July to ask voters to approve a 7-mill increase in the district’s current levy of 23.7333 mills. The increase would amount to about $84 on a home assessed at $150,000 and would bring in about $1.6 million extra per year. It’s a fairly modest increase, enough so that Houser said he’s been questioned on why the district didn’t ask for more.

“I’ve taken some heat for not asking for more, but I think it’s a fair amount,” he said. “In and of itself it’s not enough but with staffing studies and trimming our budget, it becomes sufficient to do what we want to do.”

Among the problems that the extra money could help alleviate, Houser said, are below-average teacher salaries and low Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) reading and writing scores.

Teacher salaries in the district, which were about 13 percent behind state average in 1999, are now nearly 18 percent behind, Houser said. What this means is that many teachers spend a year or two in the district, then leave for higher-paying jobs, such as in Shiprock, N.M.

“We lost a teacher the last week of school to Shiprock, where they can make $20,000 a year more,” Houser said.

About $525,000 of the new revenues would be earmarked for higher staff salaries, helping to close the gap between Re-1 and the state average, and making the district more competitive with Shiprock as well, when commuting expenses are factored in.

“I don’t know that we have to be at state average, but we have to be closer than we are right now,” Houser said.

The additional money would also go to implement a uniform district curriculum; provide reading interventions in grades K-8; develop an agricultural/ vocaional program at the high school; implement a student success program at the high school and middle school; and improve campus safety.

Re-1 has suffered in recent years from the effects of TABOR, the state constitutional amendment that limits spending and income, and from declining student enrollment. One of the consequences of the area’s growing popularity with retirees and second- home owners is that home prices are rising and fewer young families with children are moving in.

Because schools’ funding from the state is based on how many pupils they have, this has meant budget cuts for Re-1.

As of Sept. 23, Re-1 was down 190 students from last year, Houser said. At $5,500 per student (the state’s funding), that would translate to a loss of $1.045 million. The state averages the last four years’ enrollment together so that no district has to absorb such a cut all at once, but over the last four years the district has lost $300,000 to $500,000 in revenues from the state, Houser said.

And lower student numbers don’t necessarily mean equivalent drops in expenses, he explained. “At the elementary level, you may have a school that’s down 40 [students],” he said. “That’s about $200,000. But those 40 students may not be all in one grade. You could eliminate a teaching position if they were, but if they’re distributed through all five grades you can’t just cut teaching positions.”

Likewise, utility and fuel costs don’t drop concurrently with student enrollment, though Houser is hopeful that with energy prices going down this year they won’t be a budget problem.

There has been talk of going from two bus routes to one route, but that would save only about $100,000 out of a $25 million budget, Houser said, and would cause problems because many drivers might not be willing to work if their hours were cut in half.

“We’re not having that conversation right now, but we may have to some day,” he said.

The mill-levy increase would also help to implement district improvement plans, such as a plan to deal with the problematic CSAP scores.

The district was put on accreditation watch last November — meaning it could lose its accreditation — because overall scores from 2000 had not improved and the district’s most recent scores had fallen, while student scores statewide had been increasing. The district had to develop an accreditation plan. The mill-levy increase would allow the district to better implement that plan, he said.

Although the district’s reading, writing and math scores improved somewhat for 2005-06, Houser said, they aren’t satisfactory.

Houser, who is in his second year as superintendent of Re-1, said he is hopeful the mill-levy measure will pass. A local committee of concerned citizens, called Support Our Schools, is promoting the measure.

“I’m optimistic because of the people that are working on it and the need for it,” Houser said.

From Election, October 2006.