Building a better school for the future

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By Sarah Swanson

  An interview with Dr. David MacKenzie, Superintendent and Craig Holmes, President of the Board of Education

As a resident of Gilpin County, a parent of a student in the Gilpin County School, and a supporter of the 3A initiative, I wanted to get some answers to my questions and find out the truth about some rumors I’d been hearing. I figured who better to get the answers from than the Superintendent of Schools and the President of the Board of Education.

  Q: At the front of the school is a poster that reads “A School of Distinction and Destination.” What does this mean? How will the money from the 3A mill levy help this vision?

  MacKenzie: Our goal is to provide the children in Gilpin County with an excellent education. Using research-based instructional teaching strategies and State-aligned curriculum, we strive to engage students in an active learning environment, teach them to work in cooperative groups, and prepare them for a technology-based 21st century world. Our goal is to see all kids grow from year to year and show growth at the 65th percentile on State exams, which is more than a year’s academic growth in one school year. In many grade levels, we already see this growth in some subject areas, but our goal is to see this pace of growth in all subjects and all grades. Once we have built the foundation of student growth school-wide, we will then focus on increasing the rigor of all programs. The funds generated by 3A will allow us to continue building towards this goal by providing the funding needed to improve the schools technology, allow us to recruit and retain our current exemplary teachers, as well as cover the important facility and operating expenses.

  Q: These goals sound great, but then why doesn’t the school have very good ratings on the website, which provides a grade for a school based on test scores and graduation rates?

  Holmes: Although the Colorado Department of Education’s rating of Gilpin County School does not look impressive, we truly feel our ratings are hurt by an economy of scale. We are a small school so it doesn’t take a lot to skew our ratings. For example, they measure a school’s graduation rate on the number of 7th grade students who continue in the school and graduate on time. Unless you can prove to the state that a student moved, by showing their enrollment information from another school, they count against your graduation score. Gilpin County is a transient county by nature due to the casinos, and we often cannot account for those students who move between 7th grade and 12th grade, so this hurts our score with the State. The reality is this year we have 17 seniors and we expect a 100% graduation rate. At the 2013 graduation, all seniors graduated and, we also graduated four students who completed requirements from the Class of 2012. Also impressive is that this current senior class scored higher than the State average on their ACT college entrance exams. However this impressive data is not reflected in our “grade.”

  MacKenzie: The CO State score is only one way to evaluate a school. The Gilpin County Schools offer many benefits that those scores cannot show – small classroom sizes, dedicated teachers, to name just a few. I encourage anyone who is interested to visit our school, observe a classroom, and meet our teachers. As the new superintendent of schools I am dedicated to making our school district the top choice of all Gilpin County residents. Our student enrollment has increased this year, indicating that parents and children are supportive of the school and choosing Gilpin.

  Q: There are rumors that if the mill levy does not pass the school district might have to close down within a couple of years because of the significant State funding cuts.

  Holmes:  This would be the worst case scenario and highly unlikely. We have lost $1.4 million in funding over the last five years from the State of Colorado and the Federal Government. We have managed to continue business as usual in large part because of the Education Enhancement Tax we receive from the City of Black Hawk. We know that in 2014 we will see an additional $583,214 cut from the State of Colorado and we will not receive an increase in funding from Black Hawk. The mill levy increase we are requesting voters to pass will generate about $425,000.

  MacKenzie: Revenues to operate the school have been tight due to the nearly $2 million in reduced funding since 2009. The Education Enhancement Tax from Black Hawk has enabled the school to operate without cuts to staff or programs. However, increases in operational costs continue to outpace increases from the Black Hawk revenue. Without the additional funding from 3A we may have to make some major cuts to continue functioning – this could mean the laying off of some teachers, an increase in class sizes, and little or no investment in technology. This will reduce the value of education that parents and children benefit from and that makes our school unique and effective.

  Q: One of the statements about how the money from 3A will be used is to recruit and retain quality teacher. What are your plans to do this?

  Holmes: The Board of Education has made it a priority during this current recession to not lay off any teachers. Although we have not offered the teachers at Gilpin significant salary or step increases during the recession, we have continued to provide them with some increases. But more importantly, we have not frozen salaries, which many larger school districts such as Boulder and JeffCo have done in the past.

  MacKenzie: Our goal is to provide our current staff with a step increase in 2014, but we also want to look at the salary scale with a goal to increase the starting salaries of new teachers, this change would in turn increase the salaries of all of our teachers. We want to make sure we offer a competitive salary for all teachers to ensure the ability to retain the quality teaching staff we have and recruit excellent educators in the future. Also, we want to make sure we are providing our teachers with the professional development they need to stay up-to-date, specifically with regards to integrating technology into their teaching practices.

  Q: There are rumors that more than $70,000 of the mill levy funds will go to hire a safety resource officer. Is this true? Also, what will a safety resource officer do for our school?

  Holmes: That is untrue. The Board of Education has committed to providing a flat rate of $35,000 towards the salary of a safety resource officer. The County will hire and set the salary, benefits, etc. of that employee.

  MacKenzie: A safety resource officer is much more than a school guard. Not only will they ensure our students have a safe environment to learn in, they will serve as a positive role model to the children in our school. They will also provide education courses such as anti-bullying, drug prevention, etc. in the classrooms. Additionally, they will serve on our school Safety Committee.

  Q: I’ve heard from folks that the Gilpin School doesn’t do enough to involve the community in its activities. What do you think of this comment?

  MacKenzie: I believe a school should be as important to the fabric of a small community as the fire and police departments, the recreation center, the churches, etc. You have to have a strong school to have a strong community. We want to involve parents and community members in our school in as many ways as possible – from volunteering in the classrooms to attending sports events.

  Holmes:  The Board of Education has heard these concerns as well and we are taking them seriously. We will be working with the administration and groups at the school to make sure we are doing more to inform the community as a whole about what is happening at the school on a regular basis. We are also thinking creatively about ways we can use the school facilities for community activities, such as senior luncheons and adult education courses.

  Q: Many people in the community see 3A as a tax increase next year. But the advertisements in the paper say even with 3A passing we’ll see a 37% decrease. Which is true?

  Holmes: Actually both statements are true. 3A will increase property taxes by 1.699 mills next year if passed. However, we are in a unique position next year because the current mill levy of 12.705 mills will be decreasing to 6.274 mills due to the retirement of the bonds that were issued to construct the addition to the school previously. These bonds were scheduled to be paid in 2017, but the Board, through conservative money-management, will have the funds to pay-off the bonds in December 2013, saving the taxpayers millions of dollars in interest. 3A is asking voters to approve an increase from the 6.274 mills to 7.973. To put it in perspective, next year a resident with a home valued at about $300,000 will see a decrease in their annual property taxes of about $147 based on the current mill decrease – if 3A passes, that decrease would change to $105 – a difference of only $42. So it is also true that if 3A passes, residents will still see a 37% decrease in their property taxes next year.

  Q: It has been said that this mill levy increase of 1.699 will remain in effect indefinitely. Is that true?

  Holmes: That is not true. Although it does not state it on the ballots, there has been a resolution passed by the Board of Education that puts in place a mathematical formula for reducing the mill levy as the Education Enhancement Tax from Black Hawk increases. We expect to see some major increases in these funds because they are generated by a 1.5% sales tax on food, beverage, and lodging revenue from the casinos. With the expected expansion of the casinos in the next few years, we expect funds to increase from this tax.

  Q: I have heard that the voting process has changed this year. What is different?

  Holmes: In past elections, voters could drop their ballots at approved sites around the county. This year they must be either hand delivered or mailed to the County Courthouse. Also they must arrive by November 5, not just be postmarked with that date. We encourage all voters to mail their ballots in early and to vote Yes for 3A.

  Q: Thank you both for taking time to meet with me. Is there anything else you would like to add?

  MacKenzie: I am new to this community, becoming superintendent just this past May and moving my family here, but I am fully vested in both the success of our school and this community. I have two children who attend Gilpin County School and truly believe they are receiving an exceptional education.

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