The Douglas County School District covers 850 square miles and is located just south of the Denver area. DCSD is the third-largest school district in Colorado and the largest employer in Douglas County. The school district includes the suburban communities of Highlands Ranch, Lone Tree, Parker and Castle Rock, as well as many rural communities. DCSD serves 64,000 students across 89 schools.
We both have the privilege to serve our community as directors on the DCSD Board of Education. We both have children who attend DCSD schools. We are both passionate about providing all students with the brightest future possible and agree on the need for additional funding for our schools, our students and our staff members.
Like all school districts in our great state, DCSD struggles with funding. According to educationdata.com, Colorado ranks 33rd in public school funding. Public schools in Colorado are funded through state tax dollars and local property tax dollars. Looking around Douglas County, it would be easy to believe that our schools should be doing quite well when considering our county’s prosperity. As more homes are built and existing home values increase, more local taxes are collected and the local entities that collect those dollars are thriving — with the exception of our schools. Why?
Each school district has a “bucket” of dollars that is made up of state and local revenue. The size of the bucket for each district is fixed annually by the state legislature. The bucket is first filled with local dollars, then the state fills in the rest to the top of the bucket. Therefore, during prosperous times when there are more local dollars, the bucket gets filled with more local revenue and less state revenue — however, overall funding does not increase. This is completely different from how other local government entities are funded.
So how do schools increase the size of their bucket? The law allows each school district to increase funding up to 25% through a locally approved mill levy override. MLOs generally provide additional ongoing revenue which can be used for people (competitive salaries and providing additional student services). Additionally, the law intends for all capital funding (to build new schools as well as to upgrade and maintain current schools) to come from a locally approved bond initiative.
In 2018, the amazing residents of Douglas County voted yes to pass an MLO and a bond measure. We continue to be incredibly thankful for their support. We used the additional MLO funding to begin to close some of the internal pay gaps that exist in DCSD and to add counselors to each of our schools. The bond enabled us to catch up on critical maintenance in our buildings that had been put off for far too long. The bond also made it possible for DCSD to finally construct a long-awaited addition at Castle View High School, and to purchase the former Wildlife Experience building that will offer our students more career and technical education opportunities such as aviation, culinary, nursing, STEM, teaching and more.
DCSD’s MLO allowed us to increase our funding by 12%. However, through years of successful initiatives, nearby districts have increased their funding by closer to 25%, which has led to significant challenges for our school district when it comes to competitive pay for our amazing teachers and staff. Cherry Creek School District, for example, receives 25% additional funding through their MLO, so their average teacher salary is about $18,000 higher than in DCSD. While our teachers are incredibly dedicated and passionate, it is very difficult to ignore a significantly higher paycheck a few miles away.
In addition, some areas of our county are seeing tremendous growth, such as Sterling Ranch, The Canyons and Crystal Valley Ranch. There is a great need to build new elementary schools to meet this growth and to create additions to some of our middle schools near these developments. The only way to fund the construction of new schools is to pass a local bond measure.
Due to these challenges, the DCSD Board of Education formed a Mill Bond Exploratory Ad-Hoc Committee made up of citizens from across our county to advise the board on the feasibility of a November 2022 ballot initiative. We are both very grateful for the hard work of this committee.
As two individual directors, we are asking our community to come together in support of a potential MLO and bond measure so that we can retain our educators and support staff, accommodate growth in our county, and ultimately continue to provide the brightest future possible for our students. More information is available at dcsdk12.org/funding.
Elizabeth Hanson and Christy Williams are directors on the Douglas County School Board.