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Voters in Colo.'s Largest District Back 1st School-Tax Increase

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in 7 Years By Mark Walsh

Voters in Colorado's largest school district last week approved the first school-tax increase in seven years, a result that proponents of a statewide sales-tax increase for education see as boding well for their November ballot measure.

Jefferson County voters approved a $325 million bond issue for school-facility maintenance and construction. They narrowly rejected, however, an additional $117 million for a second wave of improvements.

The county school system in suburban Denver operates 114 schools with a fast-growing enrollment of 82,000 students.

After four consecutive defeats on property-tax or bond measures since 1985, school administrators structured last week's bond referendum in a way they hoped would convince voters to approve at least the most urgent maintenance and construction projects, which include plans to repair leaky roofs and deteriorating boiler systems in several schools.

The $325 million bond plan for the most essential projects passed by a margin of 55.5 percent to 45.5 percent, while the proposal for an additional $117 million in improvements lost 51.7 percent to 48.3 percent.

"We will be moving rapidly to take care of the needs in some of our older buildings,'' said Kay Pride, a spokeswoman for the district. "More than 60 percent of our buildings are more than 25 years old.''

"We will also get almost 700 additional classrooms out of this, which will go a long way toward relieving overcrowding,'' Ms. Pride noted.

Encouraging Sign Seen

The approved bond issue will increase taxes for the owner of a $100,000 house by about $120 per year, officials said.

The bond referendum was vigorously opposed by a taxpayers' group, which said it would support a $200 million plan but argued that the options put before voters were too costly.

Proponents of the Children First ballot measure, which would increase the state sales tax from 3 cents to 4 cents to provide more money for education and specific reform proposals, had been watching the Jefferson County election closely.

Donna Middlebrooks, a spokeswoman for the group backing the statewide initiative, said that although the Jefferson County proposal focused on a separate issue, she was "cautiously optimistic'' that voters across the state were ready to support the needs of education in November.

"It's encouraging to see voters showing further commitment to their children's education,'' Ms. Middlebrooks said.

Still, a less positive sign for the initiative came last week from neighboring Douglas County, where a $87 million bond proposal for school improvements was defeated by just 35 votes. It the first defeat for a school-tax hike in the county in 33 years.

Because the vote was so close, however, state law requires that the ballots be recounted before results are made official.

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