This year, Jefferson County Public Schools will be seeking – yet again – a mill levy increase that will reportedly raise $39 million. There are two measures on the ballot: 3A, which will fund operations, and 3B, which will be used to fund capital improvements.
Sheila Atwell, JeffCo parent and president of JeffCo Students First has been leading the opposition to the increase. On July 20, 2012, she and Cindy Stevenson, Jefferson County School Superintendent, debated the measures at the Arvada Chamber of Commerce Leadership Breakfast. During the discussion, Atwell raised the explosive growth of PERA costs to the district over the last few years.
As can be seen in the chart below, Jefferson County is not alone in seeing PERA absorb a greater and greater proportion of its operating budget:
Using reasonable growth rates, Mrs. Atwell projects that within a few years, PERA will eat up 20% – one dollar in five – of Jefferson County’s operating expenses.
Supporters of 3A an 3B have responded that PERA contributions are set at the state level, that neither the county nor the school board have any control over them, and that for that reason, they are irrelevant to the debate over 3A and 3B. Dr. Stevenson had this to say in response to a question about PERA reform at the breakfast:
“As far as PERA goes, it’s a worthy debate to have as a state. We can have that debate. That’s a good thing for a state to debate: how are we going to manage this? But, at the end of the day, we have to pay our share. We are not opposed to reform. Our employees aren’t opposed to refom. But we also have to remember those great starts and strong finishes in the meantime. How are we going to support our kids in their classrooms? And at some point as a state, we’ll untangle this.
“So, yes, it is legislative. Yes, we have to follow the law. Yes, all of those things. But it’s in our budget. We’re gonna pay it no matter what. So, I don’t think PERA is the issue for 3A/3B. It may be an issue, but it is not the issue for 3A/3B.” (Emphasis added.)
Defusing an objection by simultaneously feigning flexibility while maintaining its irrelevance is a classic strategy for dealing with a dangerous issue, and in fact, that’s exactly what Dr. Stevenson is doing here. In fact, both assertions are demonstrably false.
In 2012, four major PERA reform bills were introduced into the legislature:
- SB12-016, which would have given local governments the ability to shift up to 2% of the employer contributions to employees, something the state government can already do
- HB12-1250, which would have tied PERA employer health care contributions to expenses, rather than to employee salaries
- SB12-082, which would have raised the PERA retirement age to that of Social Security
- SB12-119, which would have required PERA to adjust benefits and contributions to keep the amortization period for benefits at or under 30 years
All are moderate measures. None was passed. In fact, none even made it to a floor vote. A lobbyist search shows that each was opposed by some combination of AFT, the AFL-CIO, the CEA, or CASE (the Colorado Association of School Executives). Jefferson County teachers are represented by the JCEA, the county branch of the CEA. The AFT and AFL-CIO jointly run the Colorado Classified School Employees Association, the union for the administrative staff. And CASE presented Dr. Stevenson with its 2010 Superintendent of the Year Award. It’s quite clear that, contrary to Dr. Stevenson’s assertions, JeffCo public school employees – or at least their representatives – are solidly opposed to PERA reform.
As for the Board itself, the unions have been active in school board races for at least that several cycles. A TRACER search reveals that two of the Board members, Paula Noonan and Jill Fellman, received considerable union financial assistance in their election campaigns, while Linda Dahlkemper is the wife of former Congressional candidate Mike Feeley, so was evidently well-connected on her own, and able to raise enough money from the Democratic establishment. (In fact, a number of current and former Democrat officeholders were prominent contributors to her campaign.) And the union contributed several thousand dollars to the losing 2009 campaign of Sue Marinelli. It would be unreasonable to expect board members, some of whom likely hold their seats as a result of union support, to support reforms so strongly opposed by their campaign benefactors.
It is the height of disingenuousness to claim that the solution to PERA is at the state level, and to claim that the district has no flexibility in dealing with it, and then to oppose those very reforms, including one that would have explicitly given the Board the very flexibility it says it doesn’t have. (In fact, the Board and the unions are always at liberty to negotiate changes to the employer-employee contribution mix.)
Dr. Stevenson claims that because of that inflexibility, PERA contributions are set by the state, so 3A& 3B are irrelevant. However, the reason that JeffCo is pursuing a mill levy increase this year is that in December, the district finished paying off a bond issue, and the Board wants to hold onto that revenue stream, so that it doesn’t have to come back to the voters and ask for the entire mill levy increase. Instead, it can apply the existing bond mill levy to the proposed increase, making the apparent increase smaller. In theory, a mill levy dedicated to debt can only be used for other debt, once the initial bond is paid off. In reality:
“What [those proposing the increase] realized was we had a unique opportunity right now to get money into our classrooms for great teachers, great education, and not increase your property taxes to an extreme level. Here’s why we have that opportunity. We are going to be paying off bonds in December, that’s true. That equals about 4.75 mills. Now, there’s nothing in statute that says the Board has to refund that. We can do that, or we can apply it to other debt. Sheila is right: you can’t move bond mills – that’s the way I think about it – to operations. However, we can look at the total mill increase.” (Emphasis added.)
Dr. Stevenson all but admits that the right way to think about the JeffCO school budget – any budget, in fact – is to consider it as a whole. Money not used for debt reduction can be applied to operations. Or PERA.
Whenever a government asks for a tax increase, it’s sold on the basis of things like “great starts and strong finishes,” but much of the time, ends up going to feather the nest of those proposing it. Mrs. Atwell has correctly identified the source of a large and growing structural gap in JeffCo’s school financing, one which ought to be addressed before asking the public to turn over more money to the district.
UPDATE: Go to JeffCo Students First Action to see what you can do to stop this measure.