School board approves $288 million bond and $11 million mill levy override for Nov. ballot

By John Gardner
The Surveyor

The Thompson School Board of Education approved allowing voters to decide on the $288.5 million bond initiative and an $11 million mill levy override.

The bond issue passed by unanimous vote, but the mill levy had a single “no” vote by Carl Langner who argued that it was unfair to ask taxpayers–some who haven’t received a pay raise in several years– to pay higher taxes in order to give district employees one.

“It’s unfair to raise average teachers’ salaries 18 percent over five years when the average [Thompson School District] taxpayers’ wages are stagnant or declining,” Langner said.

Langner supported the bond issue, however, saying that the Thompson Reinvented plan was “bold” and he believed that implementation of that plan will help bring new families into the district and–long term–will help to invigorate many local businesses in spite of the 10 mill tax increase to cover the bond.

Langner provided reasons to support the mill levy as well, including that many people believe that teachers are overworked and underpaid, higher salaries would improve teacher moral which may result in improved student outcomes, and higher salaries would help to hire and retain the best teachers.

But he cited a newly adopted Community Needs Assessment that stated, when adjusted for inflation Larimer County saw a larger decline in average wages (17.7 percent) between 2002 and 2011 compared to Weld County (12.2 percent). The report stated also, and Langner highlighted, that according to the 2009-2011 American Community Survey three-year estimates, more than half of Larimer County renting households (54.5 percent) paid in excess of 30 percent of their income for housing.

“Many people would like to see improved student performance before raising salaries,” Langner said.

But board member Jeff Swanty countered Langner’s point by saying that the mill levy is necessary to begin closing the wage gap between Thompson and neighboring districts.

“I think–more importantly–we are close to 14 or 15 percent below what other districts are paying teachers and administrators, Swanty said.

“I think it’s very important to pay our teachers, administrators, and everyone who works in the district a fair wage,” he added.

School board president Lori Hvizda Ward was supported both initiatives, saying it was the best to allow voters decide.

“This is how businesses operate, by offering the most competitive salaries to attract and retain the best employees possible,” she said. “I’m excited to offer that opportunity to our community now.”

The Bond and MIll Levy Override:

The Thompson School Board of Education discussed the pending mill levy override and bond issue to pay for operational services and building needs throughout the district at its June 15 meeting.

The $11 million mill levy override will help cover ongoing operational costs, such as teacher pay raises and cost of living adjustment for all employees, funding of existing district charter schools, and some one time educational initiatives and new buses. The $288.5 million bond issue would ultimately fund the updated Thompson Reinvented phase one. Phase one includes a new Loveland High School campus estimated at $145 million, an addition to Berthoud High School that would include a pool facility, and additional classrooms to Berthoud Elementary school, to name a few. But the bond issue would also help catch the schools up on nearly $72 million in delayed maintenance projects.

According to Gordon Jones, Thompson School District’s chief financial officer, the mill levy is necessary to close the teachers’ salary gap between Thompson and neighboring school districts.

Jones explained at the June 15 meeting that if the mill levy initiative passes in November, the county would begin collecting the additional taxes starting Jan. 1, 2017. Those dollars are typically delivered to school districts between March and June, annually, which would provide the district with additional revenues not budgeted for the 2016-17 school year.

However, additional expenditures, in the form of a 1.8 percent steps and columns pay raise and 1 percent cost of living increase, have been budgeted which contribute to the $5.32 million use of reserves that is reflected in the now adopted 2016-17 budget. Jones said those additional funds could be returned to the district’s general fund reserves should the MLO pass, reducing the amount borrowed from the district coffers for next year to approximately $2.2 million.

The $11 million MLO increase would be annual and would continue into perpetuity. Unfortunately, the additional funds would be exhausted in three years if the district opted to continue the 2.8 percent pay raise annually.

“The funds would be essentially spoken for at that point,” Jones said.

The MLO if approved for the November ballot but if rejected by voters would put the district in a predicament where it would have to cut $5 million in annual operating costs to reduce the budget expenses in a couple of years.

As for the separate $288.5 million bond issue being discussed, the option for a pool facility at BHS was once again added to the scope of the Thompson Reinvented phase one. The pool was originally considered but was removed from the proposal after some discussions. But it was added to the project again after Berthoud residents expressed their view for a need at the district’s only high school without a pool.

The board requested at its June 1 meeting to include the pool back into the project, but also requested keeping phase one to under $300 million. According to Dr. Dan Maas, Thompson School District’s chief operating officer, the master planning committee has delivered a final Thompson Reinvented phase one plan that essentially includes 36 projects included in the bond.

Of those projects, the biggest is by far the $145 million new school facility for LHS. The current LHS campus would then be reconfigured into a new kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school at the tune of $34 million.

Thompson Valley High School, in Loveland, would also see $22 million of improvements, while Mountain View would see roughly $4 million in upgrades.

As for Berthoud schools, the largest project is the Berthoud pool facility that is estimated to cost approximately $13 million, but the district hopes to find some partners to help fund a portion of the project, like the Town of Berthoud. In addition, BHS would also see nearly $7.6 million in maintenance repairs and upgrades to the existing facility. Ivy Stockwell would see $1.8 million in maintenance projects, while Turner Middle School would see $2.9 million.

Berthoud Elementary remains one of the highest priority projects on the list with $6.4 million in renovations that include an expansion of five classrooms to increase capacity at the school.

The goal of the Thompson Reinvented proposal is to repair top priority maintenance items (listed as number 1-3 on each individual school’s scorecard) in every school; building two new schools to respond to expected growth; and to consolidate, renovate and reformat schools to align with populations and maximize opportunities for students. Any remaining funds would pay for projects 4-9 on each individual school’s scorecards.

The bond would be repaid over a 25-year term. The plan is to use what the district terms a “level debt service” approach where the district pays for the debt through the bond. However, the district also has another bond series that it’s currently paying down – about $90 million – that is expected to be retired in about eight or nine years, in Maas’ estimation. At that point in time, property taxes will either drop slightly or the district could ask voters to keep the existing mill levy at that point, which would result in additional funds for the district without raising taxes, to pay for Thompson Reinvented phase two.

“So, a single initiative could actually launch 20 years of reinvention in the Thompson School District,” Maas told the board. “One tax increase: 20 years of improvement and benefits.”

The district must notify the Larimer County Clerk’s office by July 28 of its intent of seeking either the bond issue or mill levy override. Ballot language is due no later than Sept. 9. If approved, the bond projects would be overseen by a citizen committee, according to Maas, per district policy.

Maas estimated Thompson Reinvented projects would be completed in about seven years.