It’s that time again: mill levy override time.
Isn’t it amazing, simply amazing that the warring Douglas County School Board can’t agree on anything except one itty-bitty tiny thing. They all want more money.
So, like many of our 178 school districts, off to the voters they go to increase the mill levy, you know, for the children.
Sadly, raising property taxes without measurable guarantees and incentives for results is a recipe for disaster, rewards failure, and is a big reason why our state’s test scores stink.
A bond is just a loan that the taxpayers get to pay off. Fortunately, thanks to our Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, we get to vote on it, meaning the school district must sell us on the idea.
They promise that our children will learn more, their test scores will increase, the dropout rate will decrease, fewer kids will be harmed in school, fewer crimes committed.
Like a boy in the back seat of a car, they’ll tell us whatever we want to hear to get us to say yes.
Contrast school bonds with a construction loan. You’re going to build a new office building and you get a loan for a million dollars. But you don’t get a million dollars all at once. You get it in increments, as different parts of the project are done.
You first get the money to do the excavation. Once you show that is done, the bank releases the money to build the foundation. Once that’s done, they release the money to build the framing of the building, and so forth.
Why do banks do this? To protect themselves. The lender doesn’t want to be on the hook for an asset that doesn’t exist. The builder must prove step by step he’s achieving what he promised.
Steve Schuck, a developer and philanthropist in Colorado Springs, has lived with this reality for his entire career as a builder. For years he’s been trying to convince the education world to live by the same rules.
His idea is ridiculously simple and straightforward: taxpayers should shoot down any mill levy override unless there is a measurable educational outcome attached to it.
We’re told we’re increasing taxes so kids can learn better. Well, if that’s really the case, then the money can be released when certain education milestones are met.
Say a quarter of the total bond amount is released right at the beginning so the school district can start doing the work they promised.
Then when certain benchmarks are hit, like the district’s test scores improving to a certain level by a certain date, then the next tranche of money is released. Perhaps when drop-out rates are reduced to an agreed amount, then the next tranche is released.
The promises can be structured any way the district likes, but there must be date-certain measured improvement to get the rest of the dough.
The bank backing the office-building loan has a built-in incentive to release money this way: it’s their tuchus on the line. Bond dealers don’t. The taxpayers are going to pay them no matter what.
You see the problem here. The guy getting the loan, the school district, certainly doesn’t want to guarantee results and the guy giving the loan doesn’t care diddly, his “customer” isn’t paying the loan back — captive taxpayers are.
No wonder Steve Schuck hasn’t been able to sell this simple, powerful idea.
The villain isn’t the school district. They just want more money — always have, always will.
The villain isn’t the bond dealer. They are soulless — always were, always will be.
So, who are the villains? Who should we blame for the state’s abysmal test scores? It lays at the feet of the “education booster class” who champion higher taxes without guaranteed results.
Community leaders, the PTA, chambers of commerce, newspaper editorial boards and other influencers, should they actually care about kids, need to be the ones to withhold their support unless the bond is tied to results.
And imagine how easy it would be for the “boosters” to sell the bond to their community with performance guarantees.
Until school districts are willing to put even the smallest guarantee of student results, there shouldn’t be another mill levy passed in Colorado.
Unless of course we don’t really care about the children.
Jon Caldara is president of the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.
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