Douglas County is a vast, beautiful, and rapidly growing county in the south metropolitan Denver area. Just like the rest of this wonderful state, it is a popular destination for new transplants.
With the county’s population already exceeding 300,000, many experts expect the population will fully double by 2040. As a consequence, the nearly 70,000 children we now educate in kindergarten through 12th grade will likely increase to around 140,000.
Unfortunately, the county’s school system is simply unable to handle such growth unless something changes. Indeed, many of our schools are already over-crowded, as the county has grown by 91,000 residents within the last year alone.
For instance, Sterling Ranch is a new development off of Titan Road in the northwest part of the county. That development is just starting construction, with a plan to eventually add 12,050 new homes. Our school district has estimated that to meet that kind of growth, we will need eight new neighborhood schools — five elementary, two middle, and one high school — to educate Sterling Ranch’s children. The construction costs for these schools alone will approach $400 million.
It is no exaggeration to say that the school district has no funds, whatsoever, available to cover the massive expense of this extensive construction, or for the construction of the new school buildings that will be required to support a number of other planned developments.
In fact, as one of the most poorly funded school district in the metro area, Douglas County struggles — although it nevertheless succeeds, for now — to reach its goal of providing an optimal quality education for our students.
Currently, the district must address about $225 million of deferred maintenance for its older buildings. In order to address this deferred maintenance, without a mill levy override or a bond, our per-pupil revenue must be used for these reinvestment needs, taking money out of the classroom. Once those bills are covered, there is certainly nothing left to build new schools. If we issue and execute bonds for the new schools, as we’ve done in the past, we must re-pay those bonds with interest either through the taxpayer with an approved bond election or through a certificate of participation option where the repayment of these certificates must be funded by our per-pupil revenue, diminishing our capability to provide necessary classroom funding going forward. That is hardly the stuff of good school financial governance.
So who should bear the expense of the new schools? Over the last 10 years, charter schools have stepped up to alleviate the growth stress on our district. In fact, no non-charter public school has been constructed in that time frame.
To be sure, charter schools play an important role in the district, including an increased choice in education for our parents and students. At the same time, however, public neighborhood schools must remain the backbone and flagship component of K-12 education — with our fine charter schools forming an additional choice component.
Instead, it’s time that growth pay for itself. That means that the best solution to this important dilemma is to expect that the developers of these new neighborhoods will pick up the tab of building our new schools. These costs can then be passed on to the buyers of new houses in the area. Yes, house prices will go up marginally, but the purchasers of these new homes are the ones who benefit the most from vibrant and well-funded schools within their neighborhood.
Once these schools are constructed, the school district can assume ownership with the attendant responsibility for the operation of the school and its future maintenance by wisely using the per-pupil revenues provided the district by the state and our local mill levy.
However, the district can’t move unilaterally. Colorado Revised Statute §29-20-104.5 will need to be amended. That statute provides that the developer of a neighborhood is only obligated to provide a suitable building site for the school grounds (or cash in lieu at market value), but that an “impact fee” cannot be assessed against developers without their voluntary consent.
Last month, at my urging, the directors of the Douglas County School District took the first step in changing state law. We approved a resolution asking our state legislators to modify this state statute to allow meaningful negotiation between our neighborhood real estate developers and the school district, county commissioners, and other pertinent county officials regarding this important need.
If you agree with such a change to the law, please contact your state senator and state representative. Ask that they assist statewide K-12 education quality by mandating this adjustment to state statute 29-20-104.5.
James Geddes serves as a Director on the Douglas County School District Board of Education.
Here is a link to the Denver Post article.