When Larkspur resident Jim Maras receives his ballot this election season, he’ll be voting against the Douglas County School District’s ask for a $66 million mill levy override and $484 million bond for a variety of reasons.
A large contributing factor for Maras is that he doesn’t believe the district is fiscally responsible. Maras, whose children graduated from Douglas County schools, volunteered on the district’s Financial Oversight Committee, the Mill Bond Oversight Committee and the Mill Bond Exploratory Committee from 2018 to this year.
He said he voted for the 2018 bond and mill levy override, the last time the district passed a bond and mill levy override, but has since disagreed with how that funding has been spent and managed.
“They were buying laptop computers, office furniture, all kinds of stuff that will never last 20 years,” Maras said. “If they were doing building repairs that stuff would be around. So going back to that, I got disenfranchised with the district.”
According to polling from the school district, Maras is not alone in his opposition to the funding questions. In April, 43% of the voters polled oppose the bond, which would be used to build new schools and maintain buildings, and 41% oppose the mill levy override, which would go to increasing salaries for teachers and staff.
In regards to the bond, Maras said he doesn’t support building new schools when the district has buildings that are below capacity.
“I get that it would be really nice to have neighborhood elementary schools, but my opinion is that time has passed because the schools are getting so expensive to build and maintain and they’ve got all these other buildings that are underutilized,” he said.
Maras said he supports paying teachers more, but thinks the district should find ways to do so within the existing budget, such as drawing on the district’s $70 million reserves or making budget cuts to other areas. He added that the district should have asked voters for a more modest amount.
“I can’t find where there’s ever been any (budget) cuts,” Maras said. “It’s not being run like a business, it’s being run like a bureaucracy that wants to create empires and not do what’s best for taxpayers.”
Similarly, Robert Hampton, a Roxborough resident and former bus driver for the school district, said he thinks the district needs to consider budget cuts to prioritize teacher pay. He disagrees with the school district asking taxpayers for more funding amid high inflation and increased property taxes.
“Get rid of the diversity, equity and inclusion specialists and take a look at the number of non-instructional personnel,” he said. “If you want to pay the teachers more, pay them more, and then let’s look at what’s leftover.”
Hampton also thinks that passing bonds on a regular basis is “absolutely wasteful” and doesn’t feel he’s getting a return on his investment in the public schools.
Though Douglas County’s recent test scores were better than the state average and most other districts, Hampton doesn’t trust the scores to reflect accurately on the schools.
“It’s like saying ‘we’re all failing, but some of us less than others,’” he said.
Both Hampton and Maras said the district is “manufacturing a crisis,” such as by cutting bus routes, to get the funding.
Douglas County School District was short over 100 bus drivers at the beginning of the school year and the district implemented rolling cancellations.
Up until Sept. 14, Highlands Ranch resident Jenny Brady wasn’t planning to vote for the bond or mill levy override. Brady’s children don’t go to school in the district and, as a stay-at-home mom, she is concerned about the increased taxes impacting her family’s budget.
However, Brady said she is now undecided on the funding questions after attending a debate on the bond and mill levy override hosted by the Douglas County GOP.
“For me to go from a ‘no’ to ‘undecided’ shocked me,” Brady said. “I wanted (the opposition) to prove to me that there was money available to fund the underfunded things and I didn’t see that.”
Brady said she would like to see the state increase school funding and make the funding formula less complex, but added that she sees that the district is in “desperate need” of local dollars too.
She said that the district’s recent test scores and the school board’s policy changes regarding parents rights also restored her trust in the school district.
“I trust (school board member) Mike Peterson’s conservative values and how he’s improved parent-teacher partnerships,” she said. “I’m now at the point where I trust this board to implement conservative fiscal policies.”
Brady remains undecided largely because of the potential costs, but she said she will continue to seek out as much information as possible before making her decision.
“I’m a coach in the community, so I care about all of the kids on my teams, I care about the kids in my neighborhood, I care about my babysitters who attend local schools, I care about my community,” Brady said. “I don’t want our kids to not have the opportunities to do band, extracurriculars or sports, and I want the best teachers to stay around.”