Amid looming cuts, Cherry Creek district to vote on tax increase, bond

Combined impact totals $1.65 per month for every $100,000 of home value

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The Cherry Creek school board voted unanimously Aug. 3 to call for a November election for residents to vote on a tax increase and bond that would help close the gap torn in the district's budget by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a letter to the community from Superintendent Scott Siegfried.

To use a bond is to issue a debt to investors that the district eventually will pay back with interest. School districts often use bonds for projects such as construction and building maintenance.

The election also would involve a mill levy — a property tax increase. Mill levies pay for salaries, programs and items related to classroom instruction.

The combined impact of the tax increase and bond to homeowners totals $1.65 per month for every $100,000 of home value, according to the district.

The district faces a $60 million deficit that's projected over the next year. The hole in Cherry Creek's budget comes as the coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc on Colorado's economy — the crisis forced state lawmakers this spring to consider cutting about $3.3 billion in spending over the next year or so, leaving less money for Colorado's school districts.

Cherry Creek's deficit also amassed because of “costs associated with the pandemic,” according to the district.

“While our budget situation is dire, I am confident that we can work together as a community to find a path forward that empowers all students with an excellent education and a bright future,” Siegfried wrote.

The tax increase, if voters approve it this fall, would raise $35 million to stave off some of the worst impacts of the budget deficit, according to Siegfried's letter.

If voters send it through, the $150 million bond would pay for the following needs:

• Major maintenance and upkeep on aging buildings and a possible new elementary school in the eastern part of the district to alleviate overcrowding ($88 million).

• Upgrading security in all schools, possibly including a new intercom system, push-button classroom door locks, camera upgrades and a new fire alarm system ($26 million).

• Creating “innovating learning” spaces in high schools ($9 million).

• A mental health treatment center ($7 million). “The State of Colorado has historically underfunded support for mental health and in many cases reduced funding. It is critical we build our own facility to support students with the greatest needs as facilities outside the district are often not available to students,” a planning document for the board of education says.

• The rest of the $150 million would provide a “significant remodel to the cafeteria space” at Village East Elementary, expand programming options for students at the Cherry Creek Innovation career-technical education campus and upgrade technology regarding internet use in the district.

“The recommendation to call for an election came from the (district's) Budget Task Force and Council of Chairs, two volunteer committees made up of parents, teachers, students, community members, administrators and district staff,” Siegfried's letter says. “Those groups have spent months meeting and discussing potential cuts and new sources of revenue.”

Even before the pandemic, the district was preparing to implement community recommendations for cutting costs, finding new sources of revenue and considering a bond and budget election in fall 2020, according to a district newsletter.

That's because for the first time in recent history, the district faced an expected decline in student enrollment, while costs increased associated with programs for mental health, special education, gifted and talented students, and other initiatives. Add to that what the district says was inadequate funding from the state, and it found itself projecting a $50 million budget deficit in the coming years even before the pandemic.

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