Students, teachers, administrators and activists rallied outside West High School this morning to show support for Denver ballot initiatives 3A and 3B, officially kicking off the “For Denver’s Kids” campaign. The measures would, respectively, override Denver’s mill levy and implement a bond to raise a total of $629 million for Denver’s public schools.
Jess Carrel, a student at Denver’s School for the Arts, implored anyone who’s eligible to vote to support the measures. “Students need a voice in this election,” she told the crowd. “We are the ones that are forced to study in 80 degree classrooms.”
A central issue in the campaign is problems with cooling school buildings. Students and teachers have complained of stuffy classrooms for years.
Initiative 3B, the bond, would raise funds for DPS to improve its cooling systems.
“Forgive the pun, but it’s a very hot topic,” campaign spokesman Daniel Aschkinasi told The Independent. “There are classrooms where the temperature reaches 90 degrees. You can’t imagine doing math or reading in a room like that.”
The campaign, however, isn’t just about air-conditioning.
According to a video posted on the Yes on 3A and 3B Facebook page, the “bond builds classrooms, while [the] mill levy brings them to life.” In other words, funds from the bond would go toward new construction and enhancement of existing facilities (i.e., air conditioning units), and the mill levy override would improve education programs such as early childhood development, teacher leadership training and keeping classroom sizes as small as possible.
“This is about investing in kids and investing in infrastructure here in Denver,” Aschkinasi said.
While the effort has been lauded by several community groups, it has come into question by news, first reported by The Colorado Independent, that only 2 percent of the construction contracts DPS granted under a 2008 school bond went to businesses owned by women and minorities. The revelation led to a federal discrimination lawsuit and to a coalition of businesses withdrawing their support for the measures. Critics are concerned that contracts from this year’s bond would go only to white men, like the funds from previous bonds have.
Still, even critics of this year’s bond issue agree that Colorado’s public schools are in dire straits. Despite being the 14th richest state in the country, Colorado is 42nd in per-student funding for public schools. The nation’s poorest state, Mississippi, pays more per student than Colorado does.
A lot of that has to do with state-level politics, and the infamous TABOR amendment to the state constitution, which was passed in 1992. TABOR, or the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, requires that tax increases be approved by voters and places caps on tax revenue. TABOR essentially delivered a one-two punch to public schools. Because of property tax caps, school districts are limited in how much money they can generate locally. And because of income tax caps, state lawmakers have a hard time generating funds to make up the difference.
Campaign brass say that, while state budget constraints need some tweaking, they are offering Denver a way to transcend those challenges.
“The state level is certainly an important issue that needs to be fixed,” Aschkinasi said. “I think the bond and mill is a way that Denver voters can prioritize [public schools] over the state issues.”
Photo Credit: Eliza Carter