Aspen school board ponders what it should ask of voters
ASPEN – The decision to put one, two or no school-related tax questions on the November ballot seems almost as complex as the state funding formula that has fueled the Aspen School District’s current budget crisis.
“There are so many questions still to be answered: Is this a supplemental tax? Is it a short-term crisis-management tax? Or are we going to think of it as replacement for the other taxes we ask of voters?” asked board President Elizabeth Parker at an Aspen Board of Education meeting Monday.
Parker’s questions were prompted by a presentation about a possible 0.5 percent sales tax to benefit the local public schools to the tune of $2.5 million annually.
Robin Hamill, interim director of the Aspen Education Foundation, said the local nonprofit group is “canvassing stakeholders” about the idea – and the Board of Education is a key stakeholder.
“This isn’t about (the Aspen Education Foundation) asking for money; it can’t just be one entity,” he said. “This is about the community. We’ve got to do this together.”
While the school board was curious, it neither wholly supported nor completely dismissed the idea. Rather, school board members asked a host of questions while doling out bits of advice from past tax initiatives.
“We do have to fill a huge funding hole, so in that regard I am supportive of your fact-finding mission,” said school board member Charla Belinski, referring to a proposed deficit of $700,000 next year and double that amount in years to come.
“But you’ve got to have a clear and logical request of taxpayers before you move forward,” added fellow board member Bob Glah.
“We are still doing our due diligence and doing research,” Hamill replied, adding that the Aspen Education Foundation probably would conduct some sort of poll to gauge the community’s support before actually putting a tax measure on the ballot. “But we wanted to meet with our key stakeholders first to inform them of our idea and get their support.”
In fact, whether the school board can even offer an opinion on the proposal was up for debate. State law prohibits the Aspen Board of Education from putting forth a sales tax initiative. Whether it can weigh in on a tax measure sponsored by the Aspen Education Foundation was unclear.
What was clear, however, is that whatever the foundation decides to do could affect other school-related taxing issues.
One such tax is a voter-approved technology and transportation mill levy override that is set to expire this year. Whether the school board will go back to voters in November to renew the tax was up for consideration Monday night.
Aspen Superintendent John Maloy said the district’s technology coordinator would present a report to the board by June, though the consensus was that November might not be the right time to put forth a technology tax.
“I would definitely want to understand what we were asking voters for,” Glah said. “I would not support a technology mill levy override until I see a plan that addresses the rapid changes in technology. And I am not sure we are there yet.”
On the transportation side of the equation, Kate Fuentes, chief financial officer for the school district, said funds remain from the previous override to keep the school’s vehicle fleet up to date for another two years.
That conversation circled back to the Aspen Education Foundation sales tax idea, however – and a key point surrounding the greater issue of taxing.
“What we will need to consider is what a sales tax would be and how it would fit into our other potential taxing decisions,” Parker said. “And if we can solve the problem without going to voters, we should do that.
“That is our fiscal and moral responsibility.”
The Aspen Board of Education probably will address both tax issues again in May or June.
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