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Foundation considers sales tax to boost Aspen schools

ASPEN – The Aspen Education Foundation is exploring the possibility of a sales tax dedicated to the local public schools. If the concept pans out, it could go before voters in November.

“We have been having serious conversations about this idea,” said Helen Ward, executive director of the foundation, which is the Aspen School District’s nonprofit fundraising arm. “This is a crucial time for our local schools, and I would say this concept of a sales tax is really gaining momentum.”

The foundation is contemplating asking for a 0.8 cent tax increase, which would be assessed on retail sales within the school district boundaries. Aspen shoppers pay 9 percent in sales taxes, of which 2.1 percent goes to the city and the remaining 6.9 percent covers county, state and special taxing districts.

According to city Finance Director Don Taylor, each 0.1 percent of city sales tax raises approximately $501,000 of revenue. Ward said it is her understanding that a sales tax could indeed bring in significant funds – “at a time when the district needs it most.”

On Tuesday, Aspen Superintendent John Maloy said staff cuts and increased class sizes are a distinct possibility for the 2012-13 school year and beyond. The district has slashed more than $2.4 million from its budget over the past two years, and additional cuts are ahead, he said.

“We are looking at all of our options to keep cuts away from the classroom, and there are some out there,” Maloy said at a recent public forum on the budget outlook. “But the bottom line is that we need to prepare for the worst-case scenario.”

The Aspen School District, which has asked for and received voter approval for several bond measures and mill-levy increases in recent years, would be the beneficiary of the sales tax money, though not the taxing entity. The tax would need to be assessed by the city of Aspen, Pitkin County or perhaps a special taxing district. The Aspen Education Foundation currently is researching the latter.

“What people need to understand is that the schools would not be double-dipping,” Ward said. “We have maxed out our mill levy. As such, we need to look toward other sources of stable, long-term funding such as a sales tax or taxing district.”

The foundation is modeling its initiative on a similar tax in Steamboat Springs. The nonprofit Steamboat Springs Education Fund currently administers the proceeds of a half-cent sales tax dedicated to the Steamboat Springs, Soroco and Hayden school districts. The fund was established in 1993 and extended by voter approval in three subsequent elections.

According to its website, the Steamboat Springs Education Fund board of directors awards grants through two commissions – Education Excellence and Capital/Technology. In 2009, more than $3 million was distributed to Steamboat area schools.

“With so many restrictions on how the schools can raise money for teachers and programs, this is an exciting idea,” Ward said, adding that a board to oversee the funds likely would be elected in tandem with the sales tax question to ensure total “transparency.”

“Maybe, with additional funds like this, we would be able to increase our academic standards. One thing is for sure – it would bridge the gap,” she said.

Though still in its infancy, the idea of a sales tax dedicated to the public schools has been broached at several meetings. Ward said she has talked with city officials, including Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland, about the possibility. The foundation also has informally polled the Aspen Board of Education; a formal presentation to the school board will be scheduled in the near future.

If a tax measure is to be placed on the November ballot, the language for it would need to be approved by August.

jmcgovern@aspentimes.com


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