District should spell out need for new schools
August 25, 2005
Aspen School District officials have an uphill battle in front of them, and they know it.The school board’s decision this week to ask voters for $33 million to build a new middle school and add 6,500 square feet to the existing elementary school raises a series of questions. It’s not that problems at the elementary and middle schools haven’t been in the news over the last year. But the latest arguments for the proposed new school don’t jibe with what we’ve heard to date.A Denver-based consultant and school administrators said a new middle school is needed because the building lacks windows, recreational facilities and modern design features. It’s been called “the dungeon” by some who work there.The school board rejected a plan to refurbish the school for $12 million, opting instead for a plan that will end up costing around $59 million – $33 million for construction and related costs at the middle and elementary schools and $25.8 million in interest and fees.In discussions last fall and winter, the school board and district Superintendent Diana Sirko were worried about how the Burlingame affordable housing project, which voters approved this spring, might affect enrollment. The antiquated state of the middle school building (it opened in the early 1970s), and the dungeonesque interior were not discussed publicly, at least not in any meaningful way.Although the elementary school is much newer than the middle school, district officials say they want to add 6,500 square feet there to make up for space lost to arts programs and English language programs for children with marginal English skills.This week, board member Laura Kornasiewicz expressed concern about a “misperception that our intent is to build for out-of-district students.”But is it a misperception? The school board recently opted to buy a modified trailer to bolster classroom space rather than force a dozen or so downvalley students to leave Aspen Elementary. Out-of-district students will continue to attend Aspen Elementary School thanks to the school board’s decision to expand classroom space there temporarily. So just who is the proposed new middle school for? It appears the district is playing shell games with enrollment numbers.It’s also curious that the district would move forward and ask voters for all that money when its July survey indicates only tepid support for capital improvements of this scale. Just 52 percent of the district voters surveyed said they would support a tax increase to rebuild one of the schools, well below the 58 percent threshold that would indicate likely passage.We look forward to hearing district officials spell out the need for this major new investment.