Meeker schools may again ask voters to fund shortfall

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MEEKER I Voters in the Meeker School District may be asked again in November to pass a tax levy override to fund the district and help bail out the district in its major funding shortfall.
Two financial consultants and the district attorney conference-called into the Feb. 4 meeting of the Meeker School Board to offer their insight about mill levy overrides and why the 3A ballot initiative didn’t pass in November.
Both consultants emphasized the importance of a public process to develop any ballot initiative and to make sure to have public input in determining the amount and purpose of the proposed overrides.
Consultant Dan O’Connell has studied the successes and failures of school finance measures statewide and found a pattern of success in even years and failure in odd years. He said only 27 percent of the funding measures passed in 2013 and only 17 percent passed in 2011. In contrast, 94 percent of the measures passed in 2012 and 70 percent passed in 2010.
To pass school funding measures, “the onus is on the local community,” O’Connell said.
O’Connell, who is with the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) Capital Markets, worked with the MSD to craft the bond measure for the Meeker Elementary School in 2008 and RBC services the bonds for the building fund.
He said the district could ask for a $914,000 mill levy and stay within state requirements. Any mill levy override passed by the voters cannot exceed 25 percent of the district’s total program budget.
“Assessed value is going down, but is still at a historical high,” said O’Connell. The assessed property value in Rio Blanco County was $57 million in 2000, and is now $790 million.
Since bond payments and budgets of special taxing districts are not directly dependent on assessed value, mill levies are adjusted to raise funds as needed to meet obligations in a given year.
There is public concern about the participation of bond companies in public funding campaigns as described by David Olinger in a Denver Post article in May 2013. The article stated that in several cases, school districts paid unusually high fees for the amount of bonds sold after an investment bank contributed election services to the campaign.
O’Connell acknowledged the potential conflict and said he could not participate in the effort directly but could do a workshop or help with mailers if the district reimburses his expenses.
Later in the meeting, the Meeker School Board did not sound comfortable with anything other than reimbursing expenses for a workshop or maybe printing a brochure. No decision was made to hire either financial consultant.
There is a balance of about $200,000 left in the elementary school construction fund.
Superintendent Mark Meyer said the funds could be used for building maintenance anywhere in the district, according to measure passed by the voters. To make his point he read the statute passed by voters in 2008.
Later in the meeting the board passed a measure to use the funds, and Meyer asked the principals to come up with a list of projects at each of the schools for the board to vote on.
Later there was discussion of mill levies for special taxing districts within Rio Blanco County with MSD’s Attorney Darryl Farrington. Farrington is general counsel to approximately 35 school districts and boards throughout Colorado.
There was consensus among Farrington and the MSD board and that special taxing districts can reduce mill levies by votes of the particular board members but that they cannot fund missions that are outside of their mandate.
For example, the fire district could not fund building a football field or hiring more teachers.
All mill levy increases would need to go to the voters.
Special taxing districts can lower their own mill levies by votes of their boards but they may not transfer monies or give their mill levy funds to the MSD.
Also, if special districts lower their mill levies and need more funds in the future, they would need to go to the voters to raise them again.
There was also some question about if Meeker passed a mill levy increase, could it be taken by the state or could the state reduce district funds in other ways.
Superintendent Meyer made a clear statement in response in that “Mill levy overrides don’t go into the formulas for Colorado Department of Education (CDE).”
Board member Marnell Bradfield was convinced, that “We have to go for a mill levy override, regardless.”
Mark Meyer and Bill deVergie talked about convening a citizen’s group to work for school funding and that both had been approached by community members interested in serving.
The board expressed concern that the community would see the help from the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee (JBC) approved last week as fixing the district’s fiscal problem.
“The JBC is a partial, short-term fix” deVergie said. “The big picture is still out there.”