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Upward Spending, Revenue Trends Add Context to Tax-Hiking School Districts

From Todd Engdahl’s story yesterday in Ed News Colorado, at least 23 school districts in the state are going to local voters this year to ask for one or more tax increases–mill levy overrides for various operating costs, and/or bonds or BEST matching grant requests to pay for capital construction or renovation projects. (In the unusual case of Aspen, voters will decide on a sales-tax increase to fund schools.)

The proposals follow one year after a historically-high 26 out of 38 local school tax proposals went down to defeat. Notably, this year five of the state’s nine largest school districts, cumulatively enrolling more than one-third of Colorado’s public K-12 students, are seeking voter approval of various tax increases. Some of them represent significant amounts (descriptions from Ed News in quotes):

  • Jefferson County: “$99 million bond for a variety of building upgrades; $39 million override to maintain class size and protect some programs.”
  • Denver: “$466 million bond for maintenance, technology, renovation and upgrades; $49 million override for enrichment, student support services and other programs. DPS also is an alternate for a $3.8 million BEST grant to renovate South High School, and some of the bond issue would provide a match.”
  • Cherry Creek: “$125 million bond for building upgrades and technology; $25 million override to offset cuts.”
  • Aurora: “$15 million override for partial offset of state cuts.”
  • St. Vrain: “$14.8 million override to maintain staff compensation, technology and early childhood programs.”

Given fiscal realities, there can be little doubt that all of these districts experienced some degree of cuts in per-pupil funding. But hard data from the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) only goes through the previous school year of 2010-11. My Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow has compiled CDE numbers for the state’s five largest tax hike-seeking districts.

Allowing for changes in the number of students served and the purchasing power of dollars, the simple spreadsheets break down current numbers and 10-year trends for each district in the following areas:

  • Total spending and current spending (excluding capital and debt financing costs);
  • Spending on classroom instruction and spending on “support services” (including administration, counselors, maintenance, food service, and transportation);
  • Spending on compensation for teachers and for administrators; and
  • Tax revenues from local, state and federal sources.

There are some interesting findings for the five major districts with mill levy override questions on the November 2012 ballot. From 2001 to 2011, measuring real dollars spent per pupil:

  • Jefferson County’s total expenditures dipped but operating expenditures grew by 17 percent to just under $9,000 per pupil, with a full one-third more per student spent on administrator salaries and benefits and a near tripling of federal dollars to $893 per student
  • Total expenditures in Denver reached $15,670 per student, while current per-pupil spending grew by 27 percent to more than $11,000, with administrator salaries and benefits on its own marking a nearly 57 percent adjusted increase and local per-pupil tax revenues notably growing by 18.5 percent
  • Both total and current spending in Cherry Creek made more modest single-digit climbs over inflation to nearly $9,000 in current per-pupil expenditures, with the most pronounced growth coming in revenues from federal (265 percent!!) and state tax dollars (27.7 percent)
  • Like Cherry Creek, local tax revenues in Aurora have not kept pace, but total per-pupil tax revenues ($9,332) grew more than 17 percent, current per-pupil spending ($8,818) nearly 20 percent, and total per-pupil spending ($11,311) over 25 percent during the 10-year span
  • St. Vrain showed real increases in every category measured, including total per-pupil spending (46.4 percent), current per-pupil spending (20.7 percent), and total per-pupil tax revenues (19.0 percent), though most of its actual figures fell somewhat below the other four

Much like the state-level analysis of 10-year K-12 spending trends, the above numbers should add some fodder to local discussions about the need to raise taxes or push for cost-saving reforms. A national poll suggests voters these days are much more inclined to pursue the latter option rather than to see homeowners and business owners dig deeper into their pockets.

The next eight weeks will tell us whether or not 2012 provides a repeat of last year’s dismal downfall for Colorado school tax measures.