The Montezuma-Cortez school board will put a mill levy override on the November ballot, which board members say will help increase teacher salaries.
Specifically, the school district is looking to pass a property tax increase that would raise about $2.6 million, according to Lori Haukeness, superintendent of the Montezuma-Cortez School District RE-1. The final vote at the May 21 board meeting was 5-2, with board President Sherri Wright and board secretary Kara Suckla opposing it.
The possibility of putting a mill levy override on the ballot has been discussed in recent months, particularly as district officials talked with educators at school sites about teachers’ salaries and their willingness to mobilize behind a mill levy override campaign.
The most recent attempt to pass a mill levy override in 2017 failed, and last year the board decided not to put it on the ballot, saying that the timing was off.
During its work session and monthly meeting Tuesday, the board debated whether a mill levy override would pass this year. Members said they would support the board’s decision.
Director Jack Schuenemeyer said he was ambivalent about the prospects of its success. As an off-year election, voter turnout is likely to be lower, which led him to believe that the possibility of the tax increase passing is lower, he said.
Schuenemeyer added that the district was already “late in the game” to conduct a mill levy override campaign.
Board secretary Kara Suckla was also hesitant, saying she didn’t feel that residents would go for it. She added that the public perception of the district needs to improve before it can ask for a property tax increase.
However, other board members said that a mill levy override is seriously needed, and that if the proposal is communicated correctly, the tax increase could pass.
“Last year, we used the excuse of we didn’t have time,” said director Lance McDaniel. “And to use it again, I think is actually letting down the teachers.”
Board member Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk noted that low salaries in RE-1 were driving good teachers away.
“It’s not just the county or the school district that loses,” Lopez-Whiteskunk said. “It’s our children who lose, and that’s who we really need to stand up for.”
Two audience members spoke during the public participation portion of the meeting, and both favored the mill levy override request.
Laurie Austin, who teaches exceptional students at Cortez Middle School, read aloud a letter to the editor published in The Cortez Journal in 2010. The letter by Scott Ortman compared his own property taxes with the higher amount he paid to the Cortez Sanitation District.
“I actually contribute more per year for sewage treatment than I do for the education of our children. ... I know times are hard for many of us these days, but our kids don’t stop growing up in a recession, and it is our moral responsibility to invest in proportion to our means to their future,” he wrote.
Haukeness said the cost of putting the measure on the ballot is about $40,000 and would come out of the district’s general fund. She said that the mill levy campaign would need broad board, community and staff support.
“If it’s going to happen, we have to have staff behind it,” she said.
The board will meet in a workshop Wednesday night to decide how funds from a mill levy override would be allocated. Key priorities will be staff salaries and technology upgrades, Haukeness said.