Montezuma-Cortez considers cuts after school tax fails

Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017 6:54 PM
County Clerk Kim Percell reads the results of the Montezuma County election to waiting administrators and school board hopefuls on Tuesday night.
School Facilities Manager Jamie Haukeness and Superintendent Lori Haukeness react as Montezuma County Clerk Kim Percell announces preliminary results.
Election judges Marilyn Madsen and Patti Karraker run ballots on Tuesday afternoon.
Jack Hattaway and Ann Gordanier judge signatures on ballots Tuesday afternoon.
Emily Fish of Cortez drops off her ballot in the drive-through box behind the County Clerk’s office.

Voters rejected the Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 School District’s request to raise property taxes on Tuesday night, and the district quickly warned that budget cuts were likely.

In other county elections, the Mancos School District Re-6 easily won voter approval for Bond Measure 3A, its request to increase property taxes to raise $4.95 million for a school improvements. In Dolores, Kay Phelps and Casey McClellan were elected to the Re-4A school district.

In the Montezuma-Cortez district, 2,419 voted against Ballot Measure 3B, and 2,050 voted for it – 54.1 percent to 45.9 percent.

“I would just like to say that I am disappointed in the results,” Montezuma-Cortez Superintendent Lori Haukeness said after preliminary results were read at the Montezuma County Clerk’s Office.

“I really want to thank the community that supported the school district, and obviously we still have these challenges that we still need to address, and so we will go back the board and start having some discussions.”

If approved by voters in the Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 School District, the tax would have raised about $2.7 million in 2018.

Ballot Measure 3B asked whether the school board should be authorized to raise and spend additional property tax revenues “increased by $2,678,727 in 2017 for collection in 2018, and by whatever amounts are generated annually thereafter by an additional mill levy of 4.96 mills.” It stated that the revenue would “be deposited in the general fund of the district and used for educational purposes as approved by the board of education” including new buses, technology and increased salaries.

The open-ended aspect of the tax question, the fact that the revenue would be placed in a general fund, and wording that did not limit spending to buses, salaries and technology worried some voters, who feared that the plan lacked accountability.

Late Tuesday, Haukeness emailed a news release that included prepared statements from Mayor Karen Sheek and Re-1 president Jack Schuenemeyer. All expressed disappointment.

Haukeness stated that the school district now faced a funding shortage and would consider reducing bus routes, eliminating specialty classes and increasing class size “as work on the budget for 2018-2019 begins” in December.

“We will need to make hard choices to ensure that we are able to attract and retain quality teachers and continue to provide safe transportation for our students,” she said.

“Everyone associated with the school district will continue to work provide a quality education for our children,” Jack Schuenemeyer, RE-1 board president said in the news release. “However, the community needs to recognize that it will be increasingly difficult to attract and retain high quality teachers and provide needed technology for our students.”

Sheek, a retired educator, also expressed disappointment, saying that the school district will cut not just “fat,” but “bone,” for a while now.

“When asked, most of us say we support and value education, but that support was not exhibited on Tuesday,” Sheek said. “So, where do we go from here?”

The district conducted an extensive campaign in support of the measure, which would have installed a mill levy override to raise money for the general fund. Teachers and staff members went door to door asking district residents to vote for the tax and passed out fliers at events such as the homecoming parade in October. District officials, including Haukeness, said the money would be used to give teachers raises and buy new buses and technological equipment.

But as Election Day neared, more voters voiced opinions opposing the idea, and Journal readers responded with less favorable letters to the editor. District accountability became a bigger issue.

One reader, Jeanne Stiegelmeyer, wrote a letter on Oct. 27 in which she objected to creating a permanent tax without language requiring that the revenue to be used only for specific purposes. The letter attracted hundreds of reads and dozens of comments on The Journal’s Facebook page. Most agreed with her, and many stated that she had effectively expressed their concerns.

“I feel that the people spoke and let their feelings be heard through their vote, which is why we hold elections on these matters,” Stiegelmeyer said Wednesday in an email to The Journal. “I fully support raising teacher salaries and maintaining safe buses, but not in this way.”

Brian Balfour, who was re-elected to represent District A on the school board, said he was disappointed with the 3B results and stood by the board’s decision to propose the mill levy.

“I heard this evening that this is going to be a huge morale killer for the teachers,” he said on Tuesday. “I think if we remain positive and educate the community throughout the next year ... they will realize that the mill levy override is necessary for a strong school district.”

The rest of the voting went as expected.

In the contested race for the Montezuma-Cortez Board of Education District A, Balfour was re-elected, winning 2,362 votes over candidate Tiffany Cheney, who won 1,081 votes.

District F re-elected Sheri Noyes to the Montezuma-Cortez board with 2,340 votes, compared with challenger Geof Byerly’s 1,029 votes.

“I appreciate everyone that exercised their right to vote and the opportunity to continue as a board member,” Noyes said in an email to The Journal. “I look forward to working with our new board to keep moving the district in a positive direction for our students, our teachers/staff, and our community.”

School board president Schuenemeyer won re-election unopposed in District B, with 2,689 votes.

Board member Kara Suckla won re-election unopposed in District G, with 2,833 votes.

Josiah Forkner won election unopposed in District D, with 174 votes, in a race in which only district residents could vote. The seat had been vacated by Eric Whyte, who retired.

According to unofficial results, 761 voted for the Mancos School District bond, and 284 against it – 72.8 percent to 27.2 percent.

In the election for two open seats on the Dolores School Board, voters chose Kay Phelps, who earned 474 votes, and Casey McClellan, who earned 387 votes. A total of 1,780 votes were cast for seven candidates.

Reporters Jim Mimiaga and Stephanie Alderton contributed to this article.