District tests public opinion on property-tax bump

Levy increase would be used to give salary increases to teachers

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"Cost of living" is a catch phrase used by members of almost every profession in Steamboat Springs to account for the transient nature of the city's work force.

In the Steamboat School District, those potential shortages take on an added sense of urgency, as the fate of the teachers corresponds with the fate of the city's young people.

Now, because of the passage of state legislation pushed by an Eagle County citizens group and sponsored by State Rep. Al White (R-Winter Park), the district may be better able to take the cost of living in Steamboat into account when it looks to dole out salaries each year.

That increase in district funding, which would come from an addition to the district's property taxes, needs to be approved by the voters.

As election season approaches, a consultant for the district has been surveying local voters to see how willing they would be to support the cost-of-living increase this year.

With a number of ballot issues, including one supporting child care and one supporting transportation, likely to grace the ballot in November, the district wants to see how its property-tax increase proposal would affect the other issues and vice versa.

"We as one community organization definitely need to do something to address the salaries we can make available for teachers and support staff," said District Superintendent Cyndy Simms.

The district, however, must be careful not to add another card to a tenuously stacked house, potentially causing voters to choose their favorite cause and putting all of the proposals in jeopardy of failing, Simms said.

The tax increase would come to about $19 for each $100,000 of assessed valuation on a residence.

For a commercial property, the tax would come to $61 per $100,000 of assessed valuation.

Simms said she was not sure just how much of a raise that would mean for teachers, in part because the final amount would be determined by next year's state finance formula and by the number of students in the district.

Simms declined to give out the name of the survey company or reveal how much the company was getting paid and had not responded by press time to an open records request sent out Thursday evening asking for those figures.

The district has three working days to respond to the request.

The Steamboat district has struggled in the past two years to offer teachers the salaries they want, coming up with raises that many teachers say fall short of what they need to stay in Steamboat.

Now, the district is attempting to put together a long-term compensation plan so teachers will be able to know what they will be making before the first bell rings in the fall.

If change doesn't occur soon, however, the district may be at a crisis point in terms of teacher vacancies, said Mike Smith, the president of the Steamboat Springs Education Association.

To offer the teachers enough of an incentive to stick around, the long-term plan will have to gain some teeth relatively quickly, Smith said.

The cost-of-living increase would be a good start, he said.

"I would like to see it done this year," Smith said. "I think the union would like to see it done this year. The voters may say yea or nay, but I think it's something that we've got to ask."

The difficulty with establishing the long-term plan is that the district relies on the state to determine how much in local property taxes the district can receive in a given year.

The state uses a finance formula that is adjusted by the Denver/Boulder Consumer Price Index every year to determine how much money each school will receive.

It is also adjusted by what is called the "cost of living index," which is multiplied by a base number to determine how much the school district will receive.

That factor has changed by mere thousandths of a point in the past eight years.

To reach Avi Salzman call 871-4203

or e-mail asalzman@steamboatpilot.com

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