“A tireless advocate for public education:” AEF president Raifie Bass passes the torch

Bass concludes decade-long tenure leading local education nonprofit

Outgoing Aspen Education Foundation President Raifie Bass (right) talks with Executive Director Cynthia Chase during Aspen High School's scholarship ceremony on the school's turf field on Monday, May 24, 2021.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times.

Raifie Bass has always been in it for the kids.

“Kids are the best ambassadors with their success,” the Aspen Education Foundation president said. “It’s not a matter of me sitting down or getting up on stage and saying how great, whatever, robotics is. Talk to a kid (for whom) it’s changed their life trajectory or they’re going to college to go study robotics. That’s the proof.”

For the last decade, Bass has championed school programs backed by the nonprofit — offerings like robotics, outdoor education and mental health support — and campaigned for school district funding sources like bond measures, taxes and donations.

‘There’s so many great nonprofits here, there are so many worthy causes, but I think it’s important, at least for me, to find a place that you can effect change,” Bass said.

He wraps up a 10-year-tenure as president and the organization’s longest-serving board member on June 3, when he’ll pass the baton to his successor, Paul Sohn, at the foundation’s annual meeting.

The New Guard

The Aspen Education Foundation swears in the new board leadership at its annual meeting on June 3.

President: Paul Sohn

Vice Presidents: Kurt Hall, Michelle Stiller

Treasurer: Cari Kuhlman

Secretary: Max Rispoli

Members: Bob Bowden, Marla Butler, Diana Ettlinger, Lyndsey Haynie, Pippa McHugh, Craig Navias, Ken Ramberg, Craig Rogers, Mary Scanlan, Brad Schlosser, Jeannie Seybold, Rich Simeone, Elizabeth Slossberg, Alan Tralins, Katie Kissane Viola

And he has certainly effected change, according to his colleagues and friends within the organization.

“AEF – it wouldn’t be what it is without Raifie,” said Cynthia Chase, the organization’s executive director. He helmed the organization through several periods of transition, always ready to pick up the phone to say thank you to a donor or to appear at an event; the consistency of Bass’ leadership helped bring the organization to where it is today, Chase said.

“As a result, I think AEF is in the strongest place that it has been. I think that community-wide, we’ve earned the respect of our parent body, our larger Aspen community, the Board of Education, the school district, the superintendent,” Chase said. “And I think that it has really put us in the place we are today from his leadership, and the place we are today allows us to really be impactful for student experiences.”

His passion for and commitment to public education has likewise made an impact. Bass is “a spitfire” — the kind of leader who “goes in 150% all day, all the time,” according to fellow board member Michelle Stiller.

“He is unapologetically a tireless advocate for public education,” said Stiller, who has known Bass since 2012 and considers him a friend and a mentor.

“When push comes to shove and things need to be done to care for families in Aspen, he’s the first one there, and he’s there in the food (drive) line, unpacking boxes,” Stiller said.

“It’s all the little things” — the phone calls, the volunteering, the consistency — that make a difference, Chase said. But by most metrics, Bass covered the big things, too: he advocated for a $94 million bond for facilities upgrades and teacher housing, local taxes that provide nearly $2 million annually in district funding, an endowment to fund robotics at Aspen High School.

Bass, for his part, credits just about everyone else — parents, teachers, community members, students, alumni, other board members and foundation leadership — in making those goals a reality.

“How grateful I am to work with so many amazing people and have the opportunity. It truly is an organization. It’s a team of individuals, but it’s a team,” Bass said. “Every single person has pitched in… We have so many people who just zone in, want to take something and just run with it. It’s empowering those people and seeing them succeed, and then they’re stoked and they bring other people involved.”

Community collaboration for the greater good is a common thread in his work, Chase said.

“Raifie always brings to the conversation the bigger responsibility and awareness of, ‘How can we play a part in our larger community and not operate just in this vacuum of school?’ she said.

Those are ongoing conversations — ones that entail not just advocating for the value of well-funded public education but also explaining that the need for that funding does exist in Aspen. The school community represents a far broader sect than the “People Magazine version of Aspen,” Bass said

“There are needs in Aspen as there are in every other community,” he said. “Our job is to make people aware of that and engage them on how they can help. …. It’s not over, it’s not fixed, the problems that we face — teacher housing, affordable housing for families and seasonal stability in jobs.”

“All the problems that face our community face our kids and their parents, so I don’t know if there’s any magic pill or magic number of what we can do, but I feel like all the things that we’re working on with the school district and their leadership is chipping away (at those problems.”

That messaging — that “tireless” advocacy for education — has made a difference, according to Stiller and Chase.

“The city of Aspen benefits — everyone benefits from a strong public school, and he has gotten that message through to dozens and dozens of influential people who have donated quite generously to AEF, and we are incredibly grateful and lucky to have him on our team,” Stiller said.

For Bass — well, it’s still all about the kids.

“I think the town is a better place for it. Certainly the schools are. Most Importantly, the kids,” Bass said. “As long as that always stays paramount, the mission will never change.”