Focus

Tying a Tax Levy to Promised

by Jane Hammond

Our school district was getting desperate. It had been 16 years since we’d passed a mill levy override, and we couldn’t seem to convince voters that we needed more operating funds. State funding wasn’t keeping up with inflation, and while our neighboring school districts had all passed overrides, we were falling further and further behind. Our students were being shortchanged.

 

After an unsuccessful mill levy election in 1998, the board of education established a broad-based citizens committee to study the district’s financial picture and provide advice. We deliberately selected a mixed group, half of whom had supported us in the 1998 election and half who had not.

The committee met for several months and came to the unanimous conclusion that the district did not have adequate funding to provide the quality education our community expects. However, the committee members advised the board that it was unwise to hold an election unless success was more certain.

One day, I received a call from a citizens committee member. She asked if I thought the board and the district administration were willing to take a risk and become even more accountable for results. I answered that we were not afraid of accountability, and we felt confident about our efforts to increase student achievement. We already had developed a strategic plan that provides a framework to accomplish our goals. So the committee proposed that we hold a mill levy that tied future funding to improved student achievement. The board agreed.

Investing Wisely

On the November 1999 ballot, we asked voters to approve a mill levy override that would provide $25 million annually in additional funds. Another $20 million in increased annual funding was contingent upon improved student performance on the Colorado Student Assessment Program, or CSAP. To earn the entire $45 million, we had to improve the percentage of students scoring advanced or proficient on the CSAP by 25 percent over three years. This unique approach worked, and we passed the first mill levy override since 1983.

The next steps were critical: To meet our promise, we had to wisely invest the $25 million in upfront money to improve student achievement. We developed a comprehensive program based on best practices research. Our plan included hiring instructional coaches in elementary and middle schools and significantly reducing class size in 3rd and 4th grades, which are the first grades tested. We also implemented increased teacher training, extended learning programs for students in need of extra help and special programs to serve our at-risk populations. We felt confident these programs were.

The baseline test score, calculated from 1999-2000 test results, was 53.2 percent of students scoring advanced/proficient. This meant the three-year goal would be 66.5 percent at the advanced/proficient level, a 25 percent gain. Just one year after implementing our Performance Promise Program, we increased to 60.4 percent of students scoring at that leve—13,459 more students or the equivalent of 138 classrooms! The improvements made by Jefferson County students exceeded those of most other students in the state.

These results meant that in a single year, we met more than half of our three-year goal. As a result, the district will receive approximately $10.6 million in additional revenue to support educational opportunities for students in the 2002-2003 school year. We have asked staff and community members to advise us how to spend these funds to best enhance student success.

Four Ingredients

Our success can be credited to our focused, data-driven approach.

Our instructional staff looked at the research about what increases student achievement and we found that smaller class size alone doesn’t necessarily make that difference. What is most effective, the research says, is a well-trained teacher. Therefore we introduced instructional coaches with our reduction in class size. The instructional coaches attend training each week on best practices. They work side-by-side with the classroom teachers, instructing on best practices and helping teachers hone their skills in working with all types of learners.

Based on our performance to date, I believe this type of election could work in other school districts as long as the following ingredients are in place:

* A bipartisan citizens committee. It was critical in our community to gather the support of well-respected business people and community leaders from both political parties. This grassroots group first had to understand the district’s financial situation, then have the ability to develop a proposal that would appeal to the community. The committee members became a group of powerful proponents with the legislators, voters and the news media.

* A strategic plan. Measurable goals and objectives are essential to provide focus to the work. The strategic plan serves as the framework on which the financing plan is built. Because the district’s citizens were integrally involved in developing the strategic plan, they could support a financial commitment to implement it.

* A plan for boosting achievement. In order for a community to be willing to raise taxes, they must believe the money will be well spent. Our plan included specific information on how funds would be used in classrooms to improve achievement.

* A dedicated staff. Teachers and administrators at the site and central levels must commit to work as a team to accomplish student achievement goals. School staff must be willing to develop new expertise using the assistance of academic coaches. Employees must accept a new level of accountability.

In our district, each school sets annual, measurable student achievement goals. Administrators’ variable pay is based on accomplishment of these goals, and we are developing a staff pay-for-performance program.

Jane Hammond is superintendent for Jefferson County Public Schools, 1829 Denver West Drive, Golden, CO 80401. E-mail: jhammond@jeffco.k12.co.us