Aspen Education Foundation faces race against clock on ballot issue
ASPEN – Time is closing in for proponents of a sales tax for education to get the initiative on the November ballot, as they have yet to determine whether the county or the city will actually sponsor the measure.
“It’s down to the wire,” said Robin Hamill, former interim director of the Aspen Education Foundation, which is the Aspen School District’s nonprofit fundraising arm. “We are really hoping to get this moving forward … now.”
Ballot language must be approved by Sept. 7. Foundation representatives went before the Aspen City Council in mid-June to see if the city would put the measure on the ballot, which would bring approximately $1.75 million into school coffers annually.
The council generally was supportive but questioned whether it should be a county measure, as more than 50 percent of Aspen School District students live outside city limits. Council members at that time requested that the foundation ask Pitkin County commissioners if a countywide question would be possible.
But the foundation has yet to meet with commissioners to gauge their support.
The foundation requested a meeting with commissioners on July 18 and thought it was scheduled for this week. They later learned the item is not on the agenda until Aug. 7, leaving less than a month to iron out the details.
According to County Manager Jon Peacock, the first available time for a meeting with the foundation was actually in late August, but he was able to shift things around for the early August date because “they are coming up against deadlines.”
He said he didn’t know why the foundation waited a month from the council meeting to request the meeting. Foundation officials said they did so in order to collect survey data, released in mid-July.
“We felt it more appropriate to approach the county commissioners with the poll results in hand,” Hamill said, adding that previous informal conversations with county commissioners did not lead the foundation to believe they would support the measure. “Now we can see if anything has changed in light of the poll results.”
According to the results of a scientific poll, 59.3 percent of the city respondents indicated that they would support a 0.35 percent sales tax increase on Aspen sales to help the public school system. At the county level, 57.8 percent of 380 respondents indicated that they would support a 0.25 percent sales tax increase on Pitkin County sales to assist the district.
As such, Hamill believes the measure could successfully be placed on the ballot by either government entity.
Now, though, it’s a race against the clock to make it happen.
If the county decides at the Aug. 7 meeting against putting the measure on the ballot, the foundation will need to go back to the City Council.
According to Aspen City Clerk Kathryn Koch, the foundation is not currently on any council agenda. A special meeting is planned for Sept. 4 to finalize ballot language on another measure. The foundation could be added to that slate, or it could be added to an earlier meeting agenda. But since the council did not take a definitive stance at its previous meeting with AEF, foundation representatives are not resting easy.
“I am not worried that the voters won’t support us or that the city isn’t behind this … but time is a concern,” Hamill said, adding that the foundation has submitted sample ballot language to the city so the process can get under way. “Now is the time to pass this sales tax. Education reform will not come quickly enough to stave off serious cuts.”
According to the Aspen School District finance office, projected budget deficits from now until 2016 fall into a range of $660,000 to $980,000 annually, depending on the year.
If it passes, the sales tax would help “the district to achieve its goals of maintaining existing programming, retaining and attracting quality teachers and staff, and staying competitive nationally in such areas as technology, facilities and college counseling,” according to foundation officials.
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