If you live within the borders of Littleton Public Schools, you should have recently found in your mail a survey asking if you think the district should take an $80 million bond issue to the voters in November.
“We’re not looking at doing anything particularly fancy other than trying to maintain a safe learning environment,” said Superintendent Scott Murphy.
He said the time is right to take advantage of low interest rates for what amounts to refinancing a mortgage — not a tax increase, he stresses. LPS has historically put a bond issue on the ballot every seven to 10 years; it’s been 11 since the last one. With the average age of the buildings around 50 years, there’s a lot of work to be done.
Murphy said the school board will likely decide later this summer whether to go forward. If so, and if the bond issue passes, the money would strictly be used for building maintenance and basic infrastructure such as roofs, sewer lines, gym floors, furnaces and electrical systems.
“These are the public’s assets,” he said. “It’s our job to take care of them the best we can.”
If it doesn’t pass, Murphy said the district will just keep reacting to emergencies, as it has done throughout the economic downturn.
“We can’t close another school,” he said. “It just wouldn’t be fair.”
Murphy stresses that a proposed statewide $1.1 billion tax increase for education — planned to be on the ballot this fall — has absolutely nothing to do with this local question, and that it does nothing to address capital improvements.
“Whether people say yes or no to the state issue has nothing to do with the buildings,” he said. “This is totally a community issue.”
The state issue concerns Senate Bill 213, which aims to increase average per-pupil funding from the state and includes certain new mandates that would affect districts statewide.
“We don’t know yet what the cost will be to people and how much will come back to the community,” said Murphy.
He said it’s still unclear exactly how the state would regulate how the money is spent. LPS lobbied to retain local control and some flexibility, he said, mostly to no avail.
“The state views the needs of the community in a way that is not the desire of the community,” he said. “Make no mistake, we understand we all have an obligation to children who are struggling, but at what cost? Because all children have needs. … All boats must float, and that was what we fought for.”
If the voters reject the statewide tax increase, districts could get stuck with the new mandates but no additional money to fund them. For example, the new test that’s replacing the Colorado Student Assessment Program is an improvement, says Murphy, because it not only measures what kids know but how they think and solve problems. But the actual test, given electronically, literally does not fit on the Netbooks the district uses, and it could cost $1 million to replace them.
“A lot of legislation is well intended and individually may improve things, but collectively, over time, it feels like a wheelbarrow full of work that lands on a teacher’s desk and takes time away from teaching,” Murphy said. “If we’re mandated to get to the top of the mountain, we need the right equipment to get there.”
Along with districts throughout the state, LPS also closely monitored the Lobato case, in which the Colorado Supreme Court ruled current funding methods are constitutional after the plaintiffs challenged their sufficiency. Murphy said it at least put the issue in front of the public.
“It would have required a discussion, and for people to roll up their sleeves like adults do and come up with a solution,” he said. “There was a little bit of fear-mongering that if they were to prevail, the state would go broke.”
In the meantime, Murphy just hopes to find a way to keep the district’s buildings standing solid. He notes that the LPS community has historically been very supportive in bond and mill-levy elections.
“We’re blessed with a community that’s very active and clear about what they want,” he said. “What we always come back to is that here in LPS, there’s a lot to be proud of.”