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"Our schools are in crisis": Douglas County voters to weigh school district mill levy and bond

Douglas County voters to decide on mill levy and bond to help fund schools
Douglas County voters to decide on mill levy and bond to help fund schools 04:24

In less than two months, voters in Douglas County will decide whether to approve a mill levy and bond to benefit the school district.

Douglas County last passed a mill levy for the school district in 2018, but that funding is currently $2,000 lower per student than neighboring districts. It's why Douglas County School District is asking voters to pay an extra $20 per year per hundred thousand in home value. But will they say yes in a year when property taxes are already off the charts?

"Our schools are in crisis. We can't keep teachers in the classroom," said Legend High School teacher Matthew Solak.

Solak is used to seeing his coworkers leave Douglas County in search of better pay.

"We currently are paying about $20,000 a year under our neighbors in average teacher salary, which is really really hurting our ability to get teachers," said DCSD Superintendent Erin Kane.

The starting salary for teachers in Douglas County is about $45,000. Making it one of the lowest paying districts in the metro area, despite being one of the wealthiest counties in the country.

"Five or 10 years ago we would have had hundreds of applicants for a single teacher position. Today we have five, or even zero," said Kane.

A similar shortage in bus drivers means students now experience weeks without bus service.

"We started this school year with 104. 104 open bus driver positions with zero applicants. So, we had to do the rolling bus cancellations. We had no choice," said Kane.

It creates a challenge for parents like single mom Shannon Gibson, who now has to coordinate driving her son to school with her own work schedule.

"What's gonna come next year you know? Like, I don't know, it's really crazy to think that this is something that's going on," said Gibson.

The district's proposed solution: a mill levy and bond on the November ballot.

Ballot measure 5A is a $66 million mill levy, $60 million of which would go to increasing new and existing staff pay by about 9%, with 6 million going to security efforts like hiring more School Resource Officers.

"I'm all for it. I've been out canvassing for it. It's so important to pay our teachers competitively and keep them here in Douglas County," said Solak.

5B is a $484 million bond for capital investments, including the creation of new schools in Sterling Ranch, The Canyons, and Crystal Valley.

"We have pockets of massive growth where we have new neighborhoods and new communities growing really quickly. Right now, were bussing those students to other communities, but those communities need schools as well," said Kane.

Together, 5A and 5B would increase property taxes on a $1 million home by $200 a year.

It comes after a near 50 percent increase in home values in the county. An unprecedented jump that will translate to property taxes. That's why the Douglas County GOP does not endorse the mill levy.

"Our message has been between the economic situation and the existing school budget situation, now is not the right time," said Meghann Silverthorn, Treasurer for the Douglas County Republicans and former DCSD school board member.

Silverthorn has concerns about funding transparency, while other constituents told CBS Colorado they're worried about the board's spending on lawsuits in recent years.

"What's happening? You know, let's talk as a community about why those [funds] aren't translating to more bus driver hires, more money in the classroom," said Silverthorn.

"What can you say to people who may have a distrust of the school board or concerns about how this money is going to be spent?" CBS Colorado reporter Olivia Young asked Kane.

"How the money is spent is determined by the ballot questions that have already been approved by the school board," said Kane.

Kane says the money is already locked in for teacher pay. Which Solak hopes will address the crisis he sees in Douglas County classrooms.

"8th graders, when they are finishing their time in middle school, they get nostalgic and they want to go back and visit their teachers from elementary school that impacted them and show them their successes. And they're not seeing those teachers, those teachers aren't there anymore, they've left," said Solak, "when there's a great teacher in the classroom, that teacher builds relationships with students that are long lasting," said Solak.

Douglas County Democrats and the teacher's union have endorsed 5A and 5B.

If voters approve the measures in November, the increased property taxes would be collected in March, but the salary bump for teachers would be instant, retroactive to July of this year. The district can't promise it would instantly fix the bussing problem, but Superintendent Kane says they would be on the path to providing full transportation again.

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