For my $75 million, sell me on the bond issue, mill levy
A recent letter to the editor asked people to stop writing about the upcoming school bond and mill levy issues. The writer was, in August, already tired of reading about the subject.No doubt many folks agreed with him, because education, like religion, tends to produce dull, repetitive letters from people already entrenched on the issues. “It’s for the kids” tends to be equally offset by “screw ’em – schools mismanage money and besides, they’re not my kids anyway.”But the upcoming bond and mill levy vote is important not only because it’ll cost about $10,000 per vote cast, $64 million for the bond (principal plus interest) alone largely to tear down and replace a middle school the consultants have pronounced safe and structurally sound, but because it poses an interesting question: Are bricks and mortar the foundation of a quality education?The glib answer, of course, is no. If old school buildings produced a poor educational environment, then Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge would surely be third-rate community colleges with so many centuries-old, ivy-covered buildings.
It’s also true that 10 years after building the second most expensive high school in Colorado, the achievement scores posted at Summit High are pretty similar to those posted in 1994, although it’s easy to sympathize with the fellow who wrote a letter to the editor complaining about the difficulty of finding accurate and comparable information on the subject. A more considered, fully researched answer to the question, however, is “probably,” at best an equivocal answer to the question of whether new buildings mean a better education, because voters must keep in mind Twain’s maxim that “there are liars, damn liars and statisticians.”Most statistical studies suggest that students will do better on standardized tests in their first full year at a new school, about a 7 percent improvement. The problem, as demonstrated at the high school, is in the out years. The first bunch of students at a new middle school will certainly do well, but the second and the third less well, and by five years or so, the scores will likely fall back to those posted by students in the current middle school.Why? The obvious explanation is that a shiny new swimming pool and self-flushing urinals don’t have the same impact on education as current books, adequate teaching materials, teachers’ aides, or better salaries and training for teachers.
The bond issue provides no new resources for those education elements, and we all know the impact of a good, excited, motivated teacher. The mill levy does provide some of those resources. Even though the mill levy is targeted for technology and maintenance, money is fungible (look it up), and the schools can take general education monies that would otherwise have been spent on technology and maintenance and spend them on teachers and teaching materials. As a sidebar, the most important question for state House and Senate candidates is how they plan to cut the Gordian school finance knot created by Gallagher, TABOR and Amendment 23. In plain English, the current school financing scheme is a mess and Summit schools suffer.So, we’re nowhere near the enough’s-enough point on the bond and mill levy questions.More than half of the property tax collections goes to the school district. Clearly people aren’t as educated on the issues as they could be. At the open house I attended on the bond and mill levy issues, I was the only one there who didn’t have a financial interest in the two levies.
Everyone else who attended, the architect who’d designed the new building, the financial advisers who expect to manage the bond issue, and the consultants and facilitators, all were being paid or stood to be paid from the $75 million I would be asked to give them in November.So, for $75 million, I’m waiting to be sold on the issues and no, not by scare tactics like “one out of every 10 teachers will be fired if you vote no.”Employ that most basic school function: Educate and prove that bricks translate directly to a quality education.Marc Carlisle writes a Thursday column. He can be reached at email@example.com
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