District seeks to solve budget crunch with four-day weeks

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Part two of four: The bills behind the mills

By Leo Wolfson

With School District 27J considering four-day weeks, in part as a bid to keep more teachers here, one may ask why the district doesn’t just pay their employees higher salaries.

The simple answer is that the district doesn’t have the money.

As of early 2017, an average starting salary at in the 27J school district was $33,686, almost $5,000 less than the Denver metro average of $38,028. Average overall salaries in the school district are more than $6,000 lower than the metro average.

“More years than not, we have not given compensation (raises). We’ve been frozen, days in lieu of pay,” said Superintendent Chris Fiedler. “We’re asking everyone to do an impossible job.”

Many naysayers may point to the $248 million bond measure passed in 2015 and wonder why the school district is complaining about shortfalls and why it asked for another $12 million in the 2017 3D mill levy override.

“That’s (bonds) a different pot of money. That’s for buildings. That’s for space,” said Fiedler.

A big part of the revenue shortfall comes from local mill levy rates. Mill levies are the tax rate applied to the assessed value of a home or property. One mill is one dollar per $1,000 of assessed value. The average 27J mill funding per person is $42, a stark contrast to school districts in Cherry Creek and Boulder Valley that sit around $2,000 because housing prices and values are higher. School District 27J mill levy revenue has been stuck at about $750,000 or 0.6 mills since 2001, while the average metro-area school district now typically receives from $25 million to $50 million.

It doesn’t take a housing genius to realize that communities such as Cherry Creek and Boulder are more affluent and have significantly higher housing prices than the 27J area, which will always lead to some tax discrepancy. However, the discrepancy goes deeper than that.

The impact of mills is also highly dependent on how much infrastructure exists in a local area. Commercial properties pay around 29 percent of their property value in taxes each year.

A proposed mill levy override in November would have increased 27J mills by 10 and raised about $12 million. The same mill increase in Denver would generate about 14 times more funding, despite its public-school population being only around four times bigger. In the Jefferson County R-1 School District, the same mill increase would have nine times the effect.

 “We’re at a huge disadvantage as far as our tax base. It’s not that our community isn’t as generous as Boulder. It’s that they have to be more generous. It’s more of a burden,” said Fiedler.

Long story short, 27J has an exceptionally low amount of commercial business infrastructure for its size and population.

“We’re a bedroom community. We lack significant industry that Denver has, that Boulder has, St. Vrain (Valley School District) has, that Cherry Creek has,” said Fiedler. “We have a lot of ag(riculture) property. But it’s taxed at a much lower rate than commercial property is.”

Even if it had passed, Fiedler says the 3D mill levy override would have been a bit like putting out a house fire with a garden hose.

“I don’t have an interest in chasing a mill levy again because I get it. In the next five to 10 years, we’re going to have to start talking about the next round of bonds for schools we’re going to have to build,” said Fiedler. “We’re never going to be able to compete as far as pay. I just don’t think we can tax our way to being average.”

Some 58 percent of residents said they didn’t vote for the mill levy override in November because they considered taxes to be too high already, according to a 27J survey done shortly after the election. Fiedler said that although he doesn’t agree with them, he understands, pointing to a 2015 school district bond that meant increased property taxes for residents.

When it comes to the four-day week proposal, district teachers overwhelmingly support the initiative, according to a survey. It seems that many local parents have more mixed emotions regarding the plan. It would add around 40 to 45 minutes each school day for four days of the week.

Parent Marisa Casalinova said she has a son with severe ADHD who attends school in the district. His ADHD is so bad that he wears a weighted vest to help him sit still in class, she said

“How will putting him through a nine -or 10-hour day benefit him?” Casalinova questioned.

Longtime Brighton resident Aleah Cronk had more positive reaction to the plan. Her daughter is a high-school sophomore who takes three honors and advanced placement classes.

“Having the extra time to do homework would really help her. She could use the day off too,” said Cronk. “Kids need a home life. They have to have some childhood.”

Cronk also worries, however, that the four-day plan might backfire.

“My concern is that the teachers would assign extra homework because they aren’t in school that day. I’m concerned they would take advantage of kids and not allow them to have life,” said Cronk.

Fiedler said the proposed four-day weeks would give teachers an extra hour each day for classroom preparation and self-development.

“If we can’t pay them as professionals, at least we can treat them as professionals,” said Fiedler. “We can attract, retain, and develop teachers in a way we never have.”

Fiedler said 25 percent to 30 percent of teachers who leave say they found new jobs to get a higher salary.

“The day after the election, I told my wife, ‘We’re going to lose people in droves,’” said Fiedler. “It’s damaging when you fail.”

Turnover is a rampant problem in the district and at Overland Trail Middle School, where Eric Lambright, principal at the school at 455 N. 19th Ave., has seen about one-third of his teaching staff leave during his seven years at the school, he said.

School districts officials are now getting community input on the plan, which is far from a “done deal,” Fiedler said.

To give your input on the four-day week plan, you can attend an open house 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 12, at West Ridge Elementary, 13102 Monaco St., Thornton. 

Andrea Tritschler contributed to this report.