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Funding ‘essential programs’

ASPEN One of Aspen’s many nonprofit organizations is devoted exclusively to an idea that local taxpayers might find difficult to believe – the proposition that Aspen does not spend enough money on educating its children.The Aspen Education Foundation, founded in 1991 to provide help to the Aspen School District in offering “creative and innovative programs” for local students, has graduated to a point where “we are now funding what I consider essential programs,” said AEF Director Lisa Chiles. According to its website, AEF claims to have raised nearly $2.5 million for the schools over the years, not counting a special campaign to raise money for a new athletic field.Aspen Superintendent Diana Sirko showered praise, saying, “It’s hard to make a comment that does it justice, the amount of help they give to the district. They’ve really moved into a role of funding positions that are a key component of our educational curriculum.”The AEF was founded by a group of parents worried about the combined effects of constitutional tax-and-spend limitations approved by Colorado voters, including the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which strictly limit what governments can collect from taxpayers, and what it can spend.

Through public charity events, appeals to local businesses and grants from individuals, Chiles said, the AEF normally raises upward of $500,000 every year. All but approximately $70,000 of the money raised every year goes toward student programs, grants to teachers and other district requests.In 2005, according to tax documents, the organization raised more than $1.3 million, but a large portion of that was money raised for improvements to the district’s athletic field along Maroon Creek Road, Chiles said. Sirko said more than $800,000 of the costs associated with the athletic field came from private donations, and more than $600,000 of that was raised by one-time school board candidate David Beirne. Chiles said that the money was channeled through the AEF to enable contributors to write their donations off their taxes.The regular budget for 2005 was approximately $600,000, Chiles said, although exact amounts were difficult to obtain because the organization’s fiscal year runs from June 1 through May 31 and final figures for the last half of 2006 were not yet available.According to the 2005 Internal Revenue Service Tax Form 990, the AEF brought in a total of $1.366 million that year and paid out $78,000 in “direct expenses” incurred for the organization’s annual fundraising event, May Madness.The group paid out $399,113 in “grants and allocations” to the school district for the year ending on May 31, 2006, and AEF accountant Peter VanDomelen said another $448,000 or so was paid out in fall 2006, out of the 2006-07 fiscal year funds.Chiles, as a part-time director working three days a week, earns about $44,000 a year for her efforts, while her assistant, Vivienne Stutzman, earns about $24,000, also for a three-day work week. The office is located at the Aspen public schools campus.Prior to the current fiscal year, according to the tax form, Chiles was paid $23,570 and did not have an assistant.The funding paid out in grants goes toward a wide variety of programs and activities, such things as paying $50,000 per year to teacher Kathy Klug for her work as a college advisor to the students; $170,000 per year for three “math specialists,” one at each school at the public schools campus; and $45,000 for “professional development” for teachers.Chiles said that there was a combined request of more than $600,000 from the district this year, and that the AEF has funding only for about half of what was requested.Among those she was still hoping to raise money for, she said, is $50,000 needed to pay for a “freshman seminar” that covers skills such as note-taking, studying, writing and “some life skills.” Another, she said, is an SAT/ACT preparatory class, which would cost about $29,000.Chiles said the May Madness event this year, which took place May 4, was expected to pull in $225,000 or more from combined ticket sales, business sponsorships and auction proceeds. That’s up considerably from the amount raised in 2006, which was $155,681, according to the tax report.Chiles told the Aspen School Board recently that the AEF is embarking on a campaign to create an endowment fund, which she hopes will ultimately get to $10 million. But her first goal is to raise $5 million over the next two years, starting with approximately $3 million she said is already pledged. She told the board that Beirne has agreed to match one-tenth of the pledges up to $5 million, meaning a maximum of $500,000 from Beirne.The endowment fund’s interest would then be funneled through AEF as the basic level of annual grants to the school district, ensuring a steady stream of grants even in years when contributions are lacking.


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