Routt County Referendum 3C asks voters for an extra $600,000 to attract and retain "quality educational staff" in the Steamboat Springs School District.
We believe in the referendum's goals. There is ample evidence that the most important factor in public school student achievement is teacher quality, and it's painful to think that some of our best teachers leave our district at the peak of their careers for better pay elsewhere.
However, we are struck by the vagueness of Referendum 3C and challenge the school district to speak more specifically about how the dollars will be used to improve teacher quality. We can't endorse the referendum until we see such specifics.
The timing of Referendum 3C is important. The district is about to retire debt on the construction of Steamboat Springs Middle School. The mill to pay off that debt is the same as the cost of the mill levy override. Thus, the district argues Referendum 3C will not cost more in taxes.
But let's be clear - Referendum 3C is a tax increase. If Referendum 3C is approved, you will pay more school taxes in 2007.
This is the second time during this decade that the school district has asked for a mill levy override. In 2001, voters approved an override allowing the district to keep more than $750,000 per year for teacher pay. Next, the district created a new salary schedule that increased teacher pay at every level so that voters could see, specifically, how teacher pay would be affected by the override. That override is still in place.
The district has not offered such a salary scale this time around. District officials have said that teacher pay is slightly below the mean in 11 comparable districts, and there seems to be consensus that the district should reach that mean. But beyond that, School Board members and administrators hesitate to commit to using the funds in any specific way.
The $600,000 works out to about $2,400 per teacher in the first year. Because the override revenues will rise by about $25,000 per year for eight years, the per-teacher amount rises by about $100 per year to a maximum of $3,200 per teacher in 2015. It's hard to imagine the Steamboat Springs Education Association, which represents teachers in collective bargaining negotiations with the school district, agreeing to a plan that uses the money for anything other than across-the-board salary increases.
In fact, there is considerable risk that voters will approve the mill levy override and what they'll get in return is a nasty collective bargaining fight next spring over how the $600,000 will be used. That won't help "attract and retain quality educational staff."
To avoid such a scenario, the district must agree on a plan to use the override funds and then explain that plan to voters. And the district can ill afford to wait - the election is just six weeks away.