Answers to Failed Tax Proposals? More School Choice and Transparency

On Tuesday, voters in Colorado’s largest school district rejected both a mill levy increase and bond proposal:

“When you are a people intense organization those reductions will be people,” [superintendent Cindy] Stevenson said. “That’s teachers, counselors, librarians, um, special education staff. That’s where we’re going to have to look for cuts. And that’s going to be difficult because that will result in increased class size, fewer choices for our kids, less teacher training.”

Stevenson said the money from the ballot issues would’ve gone toward teachers, books and significant structural improvements.

The first reaction many may have is: Why doesn’t the district threaten to cut the number of administrators rather than classroom staffing? No doubt there are some additional efficiencies that could be found by rearranging these priorities. But no matter how good it makes some people feel to say so, just cutting the size of central administration isn’t the answer.

What upset me is Superintendent Stevenson’s implication that less money means “fewer choices for our kids.” Really? Perhaps fewer “choices” that are controlled by the district. But if school districts like Jeffco really are interested in providing a quality education in the face of potential budget-cutting, they should get behind more school choice. This report from the Friedman Foundation shows the cost-saving effects of choice programs.

But maybe looking back at the recent election results, Jeffco and the other school districts that lost their tax increase proposals might take another new approach, too: online financial transparency. Today’s technology makes this sort of project very much within reach. 150 school districts in Texas already have paved the way. Increased transparency helps to ensure more careful spending habits and instills greater confidence in taxpayers who can see for themselves where the money is going.

Superintendent Stevenson said the money from the mill levy hike would have gone to teachers, textbooks, and structural improvements, but how could the busy voters have found out for themselves if it were true? To help offer a real remedy, Lakewood citizen and recent legislative candidate Natalie Menten has begun a grassroots effort right here in Jefferson County. She spent her own money to obtain nearly two years’ worth of school district credit card records, and found a way to put the information into a basic online searchable database.

The need for greater transparency is almost immediately apparent. Some of the entries raise red flags: Carnival Cruise, an iPod, lots of money spent on food, etc. Sure, plenty of it is likely justifiable, but some of it certainly may not be. The problem is the current system doesn’t enable average citizens to see and make reasonable judgmments for themselves without expending much of their own time and resources.

The answer to losing the mill levy and bond election is not to fall back on the same sort of budget-cutting scare tactics. My advice to school districts: Join in the coalition to expand school choice and work to improve financial transparency. We need to move beyond the issue of control and focus on what’s truly best for students, parents, and taxpayers.