After months of poring over data and reports speaking to a root issue of funding in Lewis-Palmer School District 38 impacting staffing and educational quality, all five Board of Education Directors voted to place a proposed tax increase on the November ballot.
The vote followed multiple public comments in support of the initiative, as well as presentations to review the motivation behind improving teacher and staff compensation, ultimately with the goal of boosting stability and educational quality in the district. A key problem and solution would be cutting down turnover, which according to the Colorado Department of Education, is at the second highest rate in recorded history at just over 26%.
“We are at a critical juncture to ensure an excellent education for the children of this district. In D38, it’s becoming increasingly hard to hire the very best and continue to retain our excellent staff. We continue to strive to make our schools a place of destination through creating a culture of excellence and belonging. Unfortunately, relying on culture as our recruitment tool is unsustainable in today’s market,” said Bridget O’Connor, Lewis-Palmer High School Principal.
In an independent market study conducted with the goal of understanding the high turnover rate and more, D38 officials learned that all groups of employees, including licensed staff, classified employees and administrators are underpaid compared to 10 surrounding school districts, including Academy D20, District 49, Colorado Springs District 11, Fountain-Fort Carson 8, Douglas County, Widefield D3 and more.
“Education is a core value of our community, and all of our students deserve the best education possible. The way we get there is through caring, competent, community-based and committed educators who in partnership with our parents and community drive our system and fuel future success,” said Superintendent Dr. KC Somers. “Critical in that equation is teacher stability. We believe that a competitive workforce will contribute to and lead toward the best learning environment for all of our kiddos.”
Revealed in the salary study, D38 teachers are the last in the region in starting pay, and third to last in average teacher compensation.
“As a principal, it is very difficult to talk about culture when a first-year teacher tells you they had to apply for food stamps due to base salary,” O’Connor said during a public comment. “Or, a highly effective veteran teacher has to sell her plasma and has a second job to feed her family. Culture cannot provide life essentials for our staff, or compete against our neighboring districts.”
Community members in attendance at the meeting shared concerns about the potential impact to educational quality if nothing is done.
“I am not a teacher. I have spent 27 years serving in the Colorado Springs Police Department, so I know what public service is all about. I think we’re blessed to have the kind of teachers we have in District 38. I have also educated myself by going to these meetings, and I’m dumbfounded that we are losing up to 20% of staff a year,” said Pete Tomitsch, a community member. “There isn’t only an economic cost to that, there is also a cost to the education. Sooner or later, that diminishes down the road. You can’t continue to bleed like that and expect the same results.”
Despite measures taken throughout the school year in 2021-2022, including a raise of 6% to teachers and non-administrative support staff made possible through an increase in per pupil revenue, D38 has hired more than 140 individuals, with more than 40 positions sitting unfilled to start the school year.
According to Chief Business Officer Brett Ridgway, increases in state funding are helpful, but they do not solve for a funding disparity compared to other school districts in the region. Additional state funding and initiatives are, “never going to be as impactful as something that happens locally. The money generated locally stays locally and can be applied locally.”
Ridgway presented several funding facts to the Board of Education to shed light on where the district is funded compared to the 10 surrounding school districts factoring in all funding sources, including revenue from the School Finance Act, Mill Levy Overrides and Impact Aid, which is funding from the federal government designed to compensate districts for a loss of revenue due to military installations.
“What you can see across these school districts is a regional average of general purpose PPR of $10,565 per student,” Ridgway said. “D38 sits a shade below $900 less per pupil than average.”
Ridgway shared that the $900 represents an 8.5% difference between average per pupil revenue, and the proposed Mill Levy Override would make a difference in getting D38 closer to average.
According to Ridgway, the proposed Mill Levy Override would cost taxpayers an additional $4.31 per month per $100,000 in assessed home value. He walked through a scenario of a $500,000 market value home, explaining that at the assessment rate of 6.95% for residential property, a $500,000 home is assessed at $34,750. After applying the 7.450 proposed Mill Levy Override rate to assessed value, the taxpayer burden would be $258 per year on a home of that value.
Ahead of voting in favor of the Mill Levy Override, Board of Education Director Tiffiney Upchurch said many things don’t “feel good” about the situation the district and its taxpayers are in.
“I wrestle with the rate of inflation, that’s hurting our families and it doesn’t feel good. It also doesn’t feel good that as a district, we have expected more from our educators for less. During the pandemic, we’ve pushed them hard. Over and over, we’ve asked for more from our educators, our state has asked for more from our educators, and they deliver. So it doesn’t feel good to say thanks for doing more and doing your best and bragging that we have cheap labor. That’s not okay.”
Each Board of Education Director voted in favor of the measure, approving ballot language with several requirements, including mandating all funds raised through the tax increase be expressly and solely used for compensation for teachers and non-administrative support staff and the expenditures would be monitored by a citizens’ financial advisory committee.
To view the entirety of the presentation containing the “Why” and the fiscal constraints, tap here. To view the approved ballot language, tap here. To see arguments for and against the ballot initiative, tap here.