Inside a classroom at Douglas County High School in Castle Rock, the threadbare carpet is 25 years old — stained, worn and uneven in places. The handles of outdated wooden cabinets are broken or missing. Light bulbs on the ceiling are exposed without fixtures.
The school’s automotive and welding shops need to be replaced — a cost of $200,000. If not, the programs housed in those shops that serve hundred of students could shut down.
Last year, because of repairs needed to the heating and cooling system, the temperature of one classroom hovered around 49 degrees. Students were told to bring sweaters and coats.
Principal Tony Kappas has seen kids trip across uneven tiles. He and his staff have had to move their students out of hallways because of ceiling leaks caused by an outdated piping system from the 1960s.
“They go to other schools in the district and see the haves and the have-nots,” Kappas said.
Nearly 2,000 students attend Douglas County High School, the district’s oldest high school, which opened in 1961.
“There are huge needs,” Kappas said. “It’s getting tougher every year for these guys.”
The majority of Douglas County High School’s infrastructure and interior aesthetics have well exceeded their 20- to 25-year life cycle. The situation is similar at aging schools across the Douglas County School District, which serves 68,000 students in 91 neighborhood, charter, alternative and magnet schools.
Lack of funding over the past 12 years has directly impacted the quality of schools and learning environment, district staff and building leaders say.
Over the next five years, the school district needs between $152 million and $200 million to address all Tier 1 items, according to an executive summary of the 2018-19 Master Capital Plan.
Tier 1 items are building components that compromise school safety and risk school closure, such as a roof, fire alarm system, heating and cooling system, or generator.
On ballots that will be mailed out in mid-October, the school district will ask voters to approve a tax measure, Ballot Issue 5B, a $250 million bond. The funds would go toward urgent building needs, new construction, transportation, career technical education and security.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Douglas County taxpayers approved several local bond measures. The funds were used to build new schools as the county’s population grew. The last time the county passed a local bond was in 2006 — when the school district’s current seniors were in kindergarten. Bond measures were brought before Douglas County voters in 2008 and 2011, but voters rejected them.
District staff and school principals stress the impact on students and teachers.
“Our students need to learn in a safe and comfortable building,” Superintendent Thomas Tucker said. “If our students and staff are not safe, then not much learning, not much dialogue, can go on in a classroom.”
Tapping into resources
In the 2017-18 school year, Douglas County School District received $223.7 million from local property tax and ownership tax funding, $318.7 million from the state and other government funding, and $25.9 million from other local funding, including tuition, donations, fees and charter purchase services, according to Scott Smith, the district’s chief financial officer.
The district’s total general fund budget was $568.3 million. Of that amount, $10.2 million was used for capital needs, which were estimated to cost between $59 million and $82 million, according to the district’s 2017-18 Master Capital Plan.
The difference in available funds versus the costs of capital needs has forced the school district to tap into other sources.
Last year, the district used between $3 million and $5 million from its general fund — money that could have gone toward teacher pay and programming — for urgent, sometimes unexpected, building repairs. Highlands Ranch High School’s ventilation and air conditioning system, for example, failed — a cost of roughly $1 million, according to district staff.
“We are forced to use our operational funding to meet those needs,” Smith said. “And that’s what we have been doing these past years.”
Colorado school districts can ask voters to approve additional funding through tax measures. Jefferson County Public Schools passed a measure in 2012 and Cherry Creek School District passed a measure in 2016. Littleton Public Schools passed a measure in 2013.
A bond measure can only be used for capital expenses, such as major repairs, renovations and new construction. A mill levy override (MLO) — which the Douglas County School Board also approved to put on the ballot in the form of Ballot Issue 5A — is used for operating expenses such as salaries, benefits and programming.
If the bond and the $40 million MLO pass in November, the owner of a home valued at $474,000 would pay about an additional $208 a year in property taxes.
In April, the school board voted unanimously to hire Tucker as permanent superintendent. In his former roles as superintendent at two school districts in Ohio, Tucker was successful at helping pass every mill levy override and bond measure put on the ballot.
District employees refer to building repairs — most of which have been temporary fixes — as Band-Aids.
“Band-Aids don’t last long,” said Wayne Blazek, facilities planning manager at the district.
The average age of the district’s neighborhood, magnet and alternative schools is 23 years, according to Rich Cosgrove, the district’s chief operations officer. The lack of funding prohibits renovations needed at several older schools, like Ponderosa High School in Parker, which opened in 1982.
The 25-year-old carpet in Ponderosa’s classrooms is a rusted orange color, stained and weathered from years of use. The cost to replace the carpet — which has asbestos in its glue — would be upward of $1 million because of the hazardous removal process, according to Blazek.
The school’s boiler was installed 35 years ago. Its lifespan should have been 25 years, Blazek said.
“Because of the funding challenges that we have, we haven’t been able to keep up with the life cycle,” he said. “We are not replacing components — we are replacing components of components.”
At Eldorado Elementary School in Highlands Ranch, teachers tell parents to leave a coat for their child at the building. The school that opened in 2001 needs $3.5 million for critical building repairs, from the heating and cooling system to the generator to the carpets.
“There is such a fluctuation of degrees in the building,” said Julie Crawford, the school’s principal. “We just can’t compete with different schools or districts that have different funding situations.”
Should voters approve 5B, the no-new-tax bond would be layered on top of existing bonds, meaning the tax rate to service debt would not change, Smith, the CFO, explained.
“We don’t have one debt payment. It’s comprised of multiple payments every year,” Smith said. “As some of those get paid off, we can fill that in with the new debt. We can do that without impacting your tax rate.”
Within the $250 million bond, $150 million would go toward Tier 1 and additional high-priority Tier 2 needs, which are critical building items that affect school programming, such as an athletic field.
Capital reinvestments would account for $61 million. Of that amount, an estimated $3 million to $9 million would go toward charter school safety and Tier 1 needs.
And $39 million would go toward career and technical education and new construction. In the next five years, the district forecasts the need for two new bus terminals, a high school in Lone Tree and an elementary school in Parker.
Also at the top of the list for new construction is a 25,000-square-foot addition to Castle View High School in Castle Rock, which is over capacity by 364 students. The school utilizes eight mobiles, or outdoor structures, with two classrooms each.
“Teachers don’t have their own classrooms,” said Rex Corr, Castle View’s principal. “In essence, we’ve got all of our teachers on carts.”
Corr and other building leaders remain optimistic. They take pride in their dedicated staff and strong climate and culture. But in a district of choice, the quality of a building is often a representation of the quality of education, officials say.
Ranch View Middle School in Highlands Ranch needs $2.3 million for capital repairs. In the past five years, its enrollment has dropped from more than 1,000 students to 863. In turn, seven jobs have been cut, according to Tanner Fitch, the school’s principal.
“You have to do a lot of healing in the wake of that,” Fitch said.
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