Aspen School District budget bolstered by bond, strong funding sources
District will focus on classroom spending as funding increases
The Aspen School District’s budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year is shaping up stronger than the pandemic-bogged finances from last year, according to district Chief Financial Officer Linda Warhoe.
“We’re getting our head above water and we’re coming up on shore,” Warhoe said in an interview last week.
The Board of Education approved the nearly $169 million budget Friday at its last meeting of the school year, green-lighting a financial approach that Warhoe said is conservative in its revenue projections but aggressive in how the district spends that revenue on its students and staff.
“What we’re spending, we’re trying to really, really push it toward the classroom and this budget is leading us in the right direction,” Warhoe said.
That in-classroom spending includes provisions for a 3% salary increase across the board for teachers and staff, International Baccalaureate program teacher training, school programs like outdoor education and robotics and other basic expenses like textbooks.
Salary and benefit boosts drove 70% of all expenditure increases as part of the district’s efforts to attract and retain staff. While open, unfilled positions mean less people on the payroll (in theory, helpful from a budget perspective), understaffing doesn’t spell good news for long-term staff sustainability, Warhoe noted.
Funding for those expenses comes in part from state funding and in part from a number of local sources, like the Aspen Education Foundation, a sales tax in the city of Aspen and a property tax in the town of Snowmass Village.
There’s more of that funding to go around this year, Warhoe pointed out in a budget town hall Tuesday: Revenue is expected to increase by 7.9% thanks to more state funding, higher assessed property values boosting the tax base and ever-growing community support.
Warhoe likes to use a coffee cup analogy to break it down.
The Public School Finance Act of 1994 determines the size of the coffee cup — the maximum amount the district can receive from state assistance and local taxes, also called “total program” funding — by weighing district-specific factors like pupil count, cost of living, district size, personnel and non-personnel costs and how many at-risk students are enrolled.
Two factors apply equally to all districts in the state: per-pupil base funding ($7,225.28 this year; it increases based on the annual rate of inflation) and the budget stabilization factor, which represents state budget shortfalls.
Think of the budget stabilization factor as an IOU that never gets paid back: If state budget writers end up 7.5% short on school funding when they’re balancing the budget (as was the case this year), every district’s coffee cup gets 7.5% smaller. Last year, the B.S. factor (as some call it) was 14% in part due to COVID-related financial impacts, Warhoe said.
It’s hard to predict what the budget stabilization factor will be in any given year, which adds a challenge when it comes to long-range projections, Warhoe said.
“It makes planning for school districts almost impossible in trying to figure out what we’re going to get on the per pupil (funding),” Warhoe said.
That fluctuation is part of the reason that Aspen School District has to assess salary schedules on a year-to-year basis rather than committing to guaranteed, multi-year pay increases, Warhoe said. A newly approved master collective bargaining agreement between the Board of Education and the Aspen Education Association that represents teachers and staff includes provisions for annual salary negotiations.
All those factors combined leave the district with $11,373.69 in per-pupil funding from the state this year, up from $10,347.89 in the 2020-21 fiscal year. Multiply that by a funded pupil count north of 1,645 students (about the same as last year) to get Aspen’s total program funding — more than $18.7 million by district projections. Consider it like plain coffee filling the cup.
Here’s the thing about Aspen: the strong property tax base here funds more than $15 million in total program funding, with a more than $480,000 boost from the specific ownership tax that comes from vehicle registration. The state’s only on the hook for the other $3 million to meet the total program funding obligations set by the School Finance Act.
Now the school financing coffee cup can’t overflow, but it can add a few extras. A taxpayer-approved mill levy override adds $6 million in extra funding from property taxes — that’s foam on top.
The Aspen Public Education Fund (a 0.3% sales tax within city limits, generating $2.2 million) and the Snowmass Village Public Education Fund (property taxes that generate $500,000) add a total of $2.7 million in caramel drizzle. Both were renewed through 2026 in last year’s November election.
And charitable giving from Aspen Education Foundation, Aspen Family Connections and other grants adds chocolate syrup to the mix to the tune of more than $2 million that supports school programs and some staff.
Plus, a new voter-approved $94 million bond will fund facilities work, capital improvements and employee housing projects, with the district aiming to add 15 new units of housing in the coming year.
“These extra sources of funding have really come to the aid of the community to say we value education. … I think we’re in a really good place because of the support of our community,” Warhoe said.
Warhoe still errs on the side of caution on some of those revenue estimates — it’s her job, after all, to draft a conservative budget that won’t put the school district in the hole down the road. Property tax revenue could be higher than projected if assessed values increase by more than the 7% she estimated, and proposed legislation could boost school funding by permitting gradual property tax increases without requiring annual voter approval, but Warhoe didn’t want to bank on those just yet.
She made a few nips and tucks on expenditures, too, like continuing a pause on transfers to the capital reserve fund and cutting professional development spending in half with a focus on more cost-effective methods.
“It will be one more year of not really loosening our belts too much, still keeping them a little tight, but knowing that we’re getting this extra money, so let’s get us back and recover from COVID,” Warhoe said. “So then the following year, if we have another really good financing year, we’re more set up to do even better things.”
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