Aspen School District starts on road to voter-supported projects
Weeks after getting nearly $95 million bond approved, district officials begin tackling housing, capital improvements
With a decisive bond election victory in November behind them, Aspen School District officials will have upward of $95 million to spend on capital improvements that include campus upgrades and acquiring or building 50 new housing units for staff and faculty.
Some work the district wants to start immediately; the high school building has a leaky roof, and the campus’ HVAC system needs improvement, Superintendent David Baugh told the board of education last week at its meeting. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the district spent $300,000 earlier this year to upgrade the HVAC system with bipolar-ionization technology, which is supposed to improve the school buildings’ ventilation and reduce pathogens. That part is working; it’s the air temperature that’s been a problem.
“While we’re blowing super-clean air in the classrooms, it’s not always the warmest air, so we’re working on that,” Baugh said at Monday’s meeting.
The school district is off this week for Thanksgiving break. Baugh also announced Friday that the elementary, middle and high schools will conduct classes exclusively online the week of Nov. 30 through Dec. 4. The Cottage preschool is scheduled to open in-person that week.
As the district’s challenges to educate Aspen students continue during the pandemic, its leadership also is tackling how to put the ideas it sold to voters in the fall and addressed in the facilities master plan discussions, which go back 18 months, into fruition.
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By a 3-1 margin, voters within the district passed Issue 4A. Champions of the bond’s passage said it would mean capital upgrades to Aspen District Theatre, classrooms and security systems, and also relocating the Cottage preschool facility to the bus barn location. There has been no decision on where the bus barn would go. The addition of another 50 staff housing units also was pledged during the campaign.
The district plans to set up a website with updates on the phased capital improvements. As well, the board will need to meet regularly and kept apprised of the goings-on, some of which will require their approval.
“We went to the voters with real, concrete, tangible items,” Baugh said. “And I think we have to have our own report card as we measure our effectiveness as we embrace this work over the next couple of years.”
Within the next couple of weeks the district plans to float its general obligation bonds; but it can borrow against them to get the short-term fixes done, like fixing that leaky roof.
After the issuance of the bonds, the district will have three years to spend 85% of the money, according to Dwayne Romero, a member of the school board.
“We have a bit of a time fuse, which runs to the benefit of the community, on once we initiate and float those bonds and receive those proceeds, we have roughly three years to spend 85% of that issuance,” Romero said, “and that’s by law.”
In the meantime, the superintendent, administrators and board members plan to wrap their heads around not only what needs to be filled, but how to fill them.
That will start with a request for proposals, or RFP, to hire someone who will serve as a right-hand person to both Baugh and Chief Financial Officer Linda Warhoe, as they assume the frontlines of a capital-improvement mission that will demand expertise in project management, housing development and acquisition, engineering, and so on.
“David and Linda have the responsibility for district leadership, but I think it’s appropriate that they are equipped with subject-matter experts,” Romero said.
Prior to Baugh’s arrival July 1, members of the public schools community — including administrators, staff, teachers, parents and interested residents — had been working on a facilities master plan in lead-up to the November bond election. That included consultation from national master-planning firm and Aspen architect Gilbert Sanchez.
A housing survey also was conducted, but more research into exactly what type of housing is most needed will need to be done, said Assistant Superintendent Tharyn Mulberry. Some housing will be needed for entry-level teachers; there’s also a demand for family housing, Mulberry said.
The district currently has 43 housing units, including townhomes at West Ranch in Woody Creek. That piece of property could allow for more housing development, Romero said.
Romero said there are three main options for district housing: building on land the district already owns, acquiring land in the upper valley for the development of new housing, or partnering with the Aspen and Snowmass Village municipalities.
On another front, Aspen Education Foundation “is leading the effort on how to sequester and break apart the (on-campus) District Theatre from the elementary school and make that much more accommodating to education but also to the community and performing arts in the theater,” Baugh said.
Romero said district leadership also should see “how we can imagine parts of the campus to fit the needs for the next 25 years” as they wade deeper into the project.
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How do Aspen student testing scores compare to years past? Well, it’s not really all that conclusive just yet, said Assistant Superintendent Tharyn Mulberry, who presented the data a Sept. 14 school board meeting.