D51 school board not abandoning tax hike question following survey

By: Tim Ciesco Email
By: Tim Ciesco Email

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (KKCO) -- After learning the results of a recent public survey, the District 51 School Board asked staff to draft two proposals asking the public for a mill levy override to help fund local schools.

Board members will meet Tuesday, August 23, to vote on the two resolutions and ultimately decide whether voters see a property tax hike question on the November ballot.

The district hired Denver firm George K. Baum & Company to conduct a non-scientific mail-in survey and a scientific phone survey to gauge public support for the measure, before taking any kind of official action to put it on the ballot. During a school board meeting Tuesday night, representatives from the firm presented the results to board members.

Of the more than 32,000 mail-in surveys that were sent out, 8,253 -- or roughly 25 percent -- were completed and returned. 52 percent of participants said they would vote in favor of a $14.5 million mill levy override, while 44 percent said they would oppose it. 4 percent were unsure.

The phone survey produced very different results. Survey creators say they polled a sample population of 409 people who accurately reflected the demographics of likely voters in the 2011 election. District 51 staff members were not allowed to participate.

Participants were asked two separate times if they would support a mill levy override, with follow up questions in between.

The first time, 41 percent said they would support the measure, while 57 percent opposed it. The second time, 42 percent said they would support it, while 55 percent opposed it.

Hill Research Consultants, which ran the study, wrote in its report that based on these findings there is an "extremely low probability" the measure would be approved.

"Unless a measure has 58 percent approval or higher in early polling, it is unlikely to withstand the gauntlet or criticism and decline in support a campaign inevitably brings," wrote HRC.

52 percent of participants said their current local tax burden is too high and 43 percent were concerned about the effect the measure's passage would have on their family's budget.

Board members say they have mixed feelings about the mixed survey results.

"I'm pleased with the number of mail-in surveys that were returned because I think that shows a strong indication that people are very interested in this ballot issue," said board member Greg Mikolai. "I'm disappointed in the phone survey results, but I would point out that phone surveys don't vote. It's going to be the people of Mesa County that will."

In their discussion board members acknowledged that asking the public for money during these economic times is a tough sell -- but said they wouldn't move forward with it if they didn't think it was necessary to give students the education they deserve.

"I think what people need to remember is the impact that a failed mill levy override could have on our schools in terms of budget cuts," said Mikolai. "We're talking more reductions in staff and a greater number of students per classroom."

The district's state funding has been slashed 20 percent over the past three years. During the upcoming school year, the district will receive about $6,100 in per pupil funding, which is below the state average of $7,000.

"We can be viewed in terms of how we take care of our children in this Valley," said Mikolai. "A business or a corporation looking to come into the Valley, they're going to look to see how we take care of our own."

Following the presentation, board members asked staff to draft two proposals -- one asking for a mill levy override in a specific dollar amount, the other asking for it in the form of a percentage -- which they will vote on next week. They asked that both of the measures set a sunset date when the override would expire.

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