Aspen Education Foundation could have funding shortfall | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Education Foundation could have funding shortfall

Katie Redding
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

ASPEN ” The Aspen Education Foundation is predicting a 35 percent shortfall in revenue for its fiscal year ending next August.

The foundation’s forecast, based on nationwide predictions about philanthropic giving and the organization’s own current financial position, could impact its ability to provide funding for teacher training and staffing for Aspen schools.

Each year the foundation ” which is the Aspen School District’s fundraising arm ” funds what Superintendent Diana Sirko called “very key components” for the district, to the tune of roughly $500,000, or about $400 per student. A 35 percent drop in funding would equate to roughly a $175,000 shortfall.

The foundation, or AEF, provides funding for additional full-time employees, according to foundation board member Michelle Lueck. The organization funds reading specialists, math intervention teachers, English Language Learner teachers and college counselors, among other positions.

“It’s all about reducing the student-teacher ratio,” explained Lueck.

Lueck and foundation executive director Cindy Kahn said if the foundation does have a funding shortfall, the district, not AEF, will make decisions about what to cut. Each year, the district presents AEF with a list of ranked needs, which AEF funds to the best of its ability.

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“We really don’t know yet what that means,” Sirko said of the predicted funding shortfall. “We don’t know … if the state is going to be in a similar position in terms of funding. So there’s a lot of unknowns. And once we are able to figure out what the state does, then we’ll be able to figure out what our course of action will be.”

Sirko, who was speaking from a school board conference, said she had been hoping to hear what state funding would be like next year, but hadn’t heard much.

“People are keeping their cards pretty close to their chest,” said Sirko.

Her best guess, she said, was that the state funding would stay flat or increase slightly next year.

If the district has less money next year, it’s a foregone conclusion that something will go, said Sirko. But while cautioning that it was too early to tell, she acknowledged that “something” could be jobs.

“If we have a reduction in funds, it will ultimately be positions, because 85 percent of our budget is salary and benefits,” she said.

However, she was clear that AEF-funded jobs were not necessarily at greater risk than other jobs, pointing out that the district might well choose to save an AEF-funded math intervention specialist or reading specialist by finding money elsewhere in its budget. And she was hopeful that any unexpected money ” like the utility savings at the new Aspen Middle School ” could be put to good use to save essentials.

Kahn said AEF’s 35 percent prediction is based, in part, on current research about philanthropic giving. Nationwide, nonprofits are currently projecting a 30 to 50 percent drop in revenue for 2009, and a 50 percent revenue drop for 2010, Kahn said.

Lueck said that right now the psychology of fear is working hard against fundraisers. “There’s a perception that the economy hasn’t bottomed out,” she said.

“Thank God we’re raising money for education,” said Kahn. “Historically, while it suffers, it suffers less.”

Additionally, AEF recently decided to spend more money on a professional staff, most notably hiring Kahn as a full-time executive director, rather than keeping the position at half-time. It’s a decision that has cost them money up front, but one they anticipate will pay off in the future.

Both also said they’re hoping to under-promise and over-deliver. They wanted to give the district plenty of warning about a potential shortfall, particularly since AEF money funds district positions, they said.

Both Kahn and Lueck confirmed the economic downturn hit Aspen nonprofits suddenly. Lueck said everything seemed fine until Bear Stearns went under.

Still, last spring’s May Madness went well, and the organization just didn’t expect this sudden downturn, she said.

“That’s how nonprofits were. Everything was successful, and all of a sudden it wasn’t,” said Lueck.

To meet the presumed funding shortfall, Kahn said she has been reaching out with a grassroots campaign in the hopes of getting small donations from as many community members as possible. She’s also searching out major gifts.

And the organization intends to hold a more-inclusive May Madness auction this year. Instead of selling a couple hundred tickets at $250 each, it plans to sell the tickets at $100 each ($25 each for teachers) in the hopes of selling 400. They’re not sure what the move will mean financially, but the two said it’s important to make the annual event more inclusive.

And AEF is also working on a plan to eventually move to what Lueck calls “future funding.” It’s a strategy that would keep AEF three to five years ahead on fundraising, so it might have more breathing room during future recessions.

At a meeting earlier this year, some school board members worried about the district’s decision to fund critical teaching positions with AEF money that isn’t guaranteed from year to year.

And at Wednesday’s board meeting, board member Laura Kornasiewicz suggested teachers funded by grant money may be unfairly saddled with worries about keeping their jobs.

But Sirko said the additional AEF funding has become, in many cases, the only way for the district to provide certain services to students. Colorado is notoriously skimpy on education funding ” the state ranks 42nd in the nation in terms of spending per student.

“When you feel like you really need something and you don’t have the dollars to do it, you take the dollars where you can get them because you don’t want the kids to do without those services,” said Sirko.

kredding@aspentimes.com

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