Inside the investment

How Harrison School District 2 won a $180 million victory … and what comes next

Bryan Construction employees place an external wall on the new Sand Creek International Middle School wing in July. [Express photos/Regan Foster]

Harrison School District 2 by the numbers
11,708 students
1,478 total staff
$177.3 million total operating budget for 2019-20
Source: Harrison School District 2 2019-20 budget 

 

On a warm July morning, reggae-infused beats blasted from a classroom corridor at the growing Sand Creek International School. But what else should you expect, given that the song emanated from the general direction of the elementary building’s music room? 

Outside, however, it was a different auditory experience. The hum of traffic zipping along nearby Airport Road mixed with the rumbling of heavy construction equipment, the ping of hand-held tools and the baritone of Kevin McCullough’s voice, as he chatted with crew about the exterior brick wall they were putting into place on a 30,000-square-foot addition.

McCullough is a superintendent with Bryan Construction, which, along with Nunn Construction, is renovating Harrison School District 2’s campuses. Overhauls range in scope from comparatively simple mechanical upgrades to the replacement of Carmel Middle School.

The work is funded via a $180 million bond issue that district voters endorsed, 10,172-6,994, last November. It is expected to take six years, with the bulk of the renovations taking place during summer breaks. 

When work wraps in 2024, every school will have enhanced safety and security, fully ADA-accessible facilities, more efficient lighting and mechanical systems, and the capacity to serve not just as community schools but as community hubs. The district’s plan also includes improvements to its five charter schools. 

“It’s this that will make our district grow,” Harrison Co-Superintendent John Rogerson said. “It’s a fresh start. A fresh look at how we’re doing things.” 

The 2018 win was the first tax increase district voters had approved since 2001. It is expected to cost the average homeowner $15 per month in additional property taxes, or roughly $180 per year. 

In a community where the decision can sometimes be to put fuel in the tank or food on the table, what was the tipping point this time around? The answer lays in a multi-pronged, mission-forward “vote yes” campaign that was massively supported by a wealthy Colorado Springs businessman, the educational foundation his family launched and a savvy political organizer. 

But at its heart, it mostly lays in the school district’s large-but-intimate footprint. 

“The community has voted to invest in itself,” Rogerson said. 

“The bond is going to allow us to reset the infrastructure.” — Harrison School District 2 Co-Superintendent John Rogerson

In the beginning …

A Nunn Construction worker replaces lighting inside Centennial Elementary School.

To fully understand the circumstances surrounding the condition of the district’s campuses, Rogerson said, you have to understand its funding mechanism. Public education is financed through a complicated mix of federal, state and local tax dollars, and the district’s 2019-2020 budget shows 81.2 percent of its general operating revenues are projected to come from the state. Local property taxes are expected to account for 13.8 percent — roughly $16.4 million — of the district’s revenues in the coming academic year. 

Here’s where things get a bit tricky: Colorado laws impact how much a school or other taxing district can levy from its local base — and what percentage may come from residential properties versus commercial, agricultural or industrial. The governmental units are required to establish a particular millage, or more simply put, the tax rate. The millage is levied against the assessed value of each property to determine how much it owes each governmental body. 

In the boom years of the early 2000s, property values were on the rise — and so, too, were the dollars coming in. With the economic collapse of 2008, property values plummeted. Naturally, when the values crashed, so did the amount of tax money each district could collect. 

In addition, starting in 2009, the Colorado Legislature applied something that was then known as the negative factor (now the Budget Stabilization Factor). This formula allowed the Legislature to ratchet down its school finance formula … to the tune of a cumulative $108.7 million drop in state funding over the course of 11 years, according to the district’s 2019-20 budget. 

And that meant a drastic need to reprioritize where the limited money was spent, Rogerson said. Things like capital improvements, repairs and routine maintenance were shoved to the back burner. The downside, of course, was that buildings, technology and equipment didn’t stop aging just because the money wasn’t there. 

“Prior to that we had great plans for ongoing maintenance,” Rogerson said. “When the recession hit in 2008, money was cut across the state and we lost millions of dollars.

“The bond is going to allow us to reset the infrastructure.”

Fast forward

Jump forward a decade to Aug. 30, 2018. The district board of education, faced with the reality of aging buildings and all that came with them, voted, 5-0, to put the measure on the November ballot. That gave the schools’ advocates a little more than two months to sway voters’ opinions in favor of the measure. 

“This is something that has been in the works in some form or fashion for a half a year now,” Board President Steve Seibert said during that meeting. He was excited, he said, to work with the Legacy Institute, Opportunity Harrison and the district’s charter schools on the initiative.

‘’Politically I would probably be the strongest adversary of raising taxes, spending public funds, in the world,” Seibert said. “I would have to convince myself before I would ask anyone else to be a part of this, and through much deliberation, work with the board and staff … from my own personal standpoint, all the negatives I would have had against this have been eliminated.” 

Seibert mentioned both Opportunity Harrison and the Legacy Institute. The two are technically different entities, but they are also intimately connected. 

Partnership without boundaries

To look at the Legacy Institute website is to take a who’s who tour of Colorado Springs community development and education efforts, especially as they pertain to Southeast. 

The nonprofit — launched by community benefactor Margo Lane and helmed by her son, Culebra Properties Managing Director Philip Lane — includes in its portfolio: 

• The Concrete Coyote campus in Hillside;
• The Colorado Springs Food Rescue’s healthful food production, distribution and education hub, also in Hillside;
• The redevelopment of the shuttered Helen Hunt Elementary Campus into nonprofit office space;
• The new downtown headquarters for USA Basketball + Foundation;
• The successful, $42 million-per year mill levy override campaign for Colorado Springs School District 11; and
• Investing in the growth of Southeast’s Atlas Preparatory School.

Opportunity Harrison, the “vote yes” committee that helped push the district’s tax increase across the finish line, was the foundation’s third major educational endeavor. The Legacy Institute infused the committee with $43,200, according to state election records.

The IRS specifically forbids nonprofit organizations from participating in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, a candidate for elective public office. However, it gives groups such as the institute the go-ahead to take on nonpartisan voter-education activities like hosting public forums, publishing voter education guides, and conducting voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives. Colorado election laws did not, in 2018, limit how much a business could contribute to ballot measures. 

In addition to money, the Legacy Institute brought aboard Anthony Carlson. If his name seems familiar, it may be because in November 2017, he helmed Friends of District 11, the committee steering that district’s $42 million-per-year mill levy campaign.

“Every kid deserves an equal chance at a quality education,” said Carlson. “Looking around at the landscape, we had realized that as tough as the situation was at D11, for their neighbors down in Harrison, the kids … face very similar circumstances.

“Our community is only going to grow and it’s only going to be as strong as the schools,” he continued. “It’s the foundation for a future workforce, for the people who are going to be working here. The first thing people look for is how strong are the schools?” 

Harrison is home to 11,708 students, and D11’s census figures showed 27,161 kids as of May of this year. And that means the districts that serve Southeast have a big influence on the rest of the Springs, Carlson said. 

Bryan Construction Assistant Superintendent Gary Gray walks through a newly revamped learning center in Sand Creek International School’s elementary building.

“Those two districts serve close to 40,000 kids,” he said. “They’re important not just from the point of view of educating kids and making sure kids have a chance, they’re important to the success of the community.” 

** Related content: ‘An investment for generations’  **

Full-court press

Carlson brought with him a small-but-strong team, but the challenge remained: Opportunity Harrison had to convince an economically redeveloping and, with its large military population, transitory community to make a long-term investment in its schools. 

For that, they threw open the school doors … so to speak. 

“Let’s talk about what’s going on inside,” he said. “We made sure when … we were going out in the community we were talking about these kids.” 

Every promotional item — from the direct-mail fliers to the TV commercials to the opportunity Harrison website — featured local students in their classrooms, in the school hallways and on the playgrounds and fields. 

“There were no models,” Carlson said. “We made sure we told the stories of those students, not the story of financial need.” 

And that put a very human, sometimes freckled, face on the tax. 

“It’s an important message to tell,” Carlson said. “Especially with elections, it can feel dehumanizing in a way. Our message was to shine a light on the beautiful things that we can do together.” 

That was the starting point. But to really drive the message home, a volunteer team of community members, educators, building administrators, parents and students some 150 strong hit the streets. They went door-to-door, talking with homeowners about the issue and asking them to support renovated schools. 

“This wasn’t a few folks in the room sending mail or making phone calls,” Carlson said. “It was a real community effort to get people talking.” 

 “If you talk with them and you show them the need, they will follow you,” D2’s Rogerson said. “We had great support from

The new Sand Creek International middle school wing will house classrooms, a gymnasium and locker rooms when completed in September.

the community and charter [schools].”

“Our community is only going to grow and it’s only going to be as strong as the schools.” — Anthony Carlson, chairman of Opportunity Harrison

Breaking new ground

The district funded the project via the sale of general obligation bonds. These work quite a bit like a mortgage, allowing the district to sell bonds to private investors with a promise to repay them through future tax revenues. The ballot question approved in November caps the tax increase at $16.2 million per year and included the creation of a citizens oversight committee to review and report to the public on the use of the funds. 

That was designed to ensure accountability above and beyond the district board of education and administrative leadership, Rogerson said. 

“We are being very transparent about looking at budgets and where we’re spending and where every dollar should go,” he said. “The trust that the community put in to do this is tremendous and we must honor that. 

“When it comes down to it, [we ask], as it grows our students, does it grow our staff and does it grow our community?”

Back at Sand Creek International, things are definitely growing, physically and academically. That’s because the school was one of two selected to be grown from an elementary-only to a K-8 campus. Soaring Eagles will get the same treatment starting in 2022, according to the district timeline. 

The existing Sand Creek building will remain the K-5 campus it has been since its 1996 opening. Within its 62,958-square-foot footprint, mechanical upgrades include high-efficiency improvements to the climate-control systems and lighting hid behind freshly painted walls. Plastic sheeting crunched underfoot, a barrier protecting new carpet from the dirt and grime that inevitably cling to well-worn work boots. And yes, workers’ radios blasted from the music room. 

Bryan Construction Assistant Superintendent Gary Gray keyed open a padlock and pulled apart the chains that secured the gym’s double doors. The vaulted, two-story walls were freshly painted in hues of blue and white; and basketball hoops leaned over a covered mountain of fixtures. This was the furniture that school leaders opted to keep, a cash-saving measure in the midst of purchasing new furnishings for the space. 

In early July there was still a seemingly insurmountable amount of work to be done on the elementary building, but Gray was confident it would be done in time for students to return to class in early August. 

Outside, it’s a dramatic and slightly different story. Cinderblock walls and steel girders rise to the north of the elementary campus. This massive structure — a 30,000-square-foot, nine-classroom building with a gymnasium, locker rooms and cafeteria — is the future sixth-through-eighth campus. 

It’s slated for completion in September, McCullough said, just six months after breaking ground. District Public Information Officer Christine O’Brien said Harrison leadership is finalizing plans for housing the first class of 60 sixth graders to call the building their academic home. Until the new wing is completely ready, she said, the students will be taught in the freshly renovated elementary building. 

Consider it a minor inconvenience for a major, long-term gain. 

“When the bond was passed, it was a great vote of confidence from the community,” Rogerson said. “[We] get to do some amazing things with it.”

regan.foster@southeastexpress.org

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