Coalition pursuing new tax for early childhood education from Aspen to Parachute

From left, Everleigh Martinez, Griffin Ford, Sasha Ray and Rio Metcalf play Wednesday in the Waddler Room for 12- to 18-month-old children at the Early Learning Center in Aspen.
Aubree Dallas/The Aspen Times

An effort is underway to gauge the interest and political climate of a new tax to fund early-childhood education in the Roaring Fork Valley and the surrounding area.

Representatives from the Rocky Mountain Preschool Coalition presented some preliminary findings in front of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association board of directors last week.

They explained that the dearth of preschool options and the resulting waiting lists, coupled with how expensive early-childhood education programs are from Aspen to Parachute, are creating a crisis for families and ultimately, the local workforce.

“Infant care in Aspen is a total nightmare,” Andy Davies, a consultant for the coalition, told the ACRA board April 30.

At the Yellow Brick School where the city of Aspen operates its voter-approved sales tax-funded Kids First program, the wait list is 50 deep, and most of them are infants, according to Shirley Ritter, director of the program.

But it’s not just Aspen feeling the pinch. Based on research consultants for the coalition have done, every community in the region is facing capacity issues, Davies noted.

“It’s a huge problem,” said Cindy Kahn, who works for the Manaus Fund, which is financing the coalition’s efforts to establish a locally, publicly funded early-childhood education program. ‘This is an issue everywhere.”

The coalition estimates that providing adequate programs for families from Aspen to Parachute would cost around $2.6 million a year.

That could be funded through a sales tax increase of 0.12% or a 0.5 mill levy property tax increase, according to the coalition.

Colorado House Bill 1052 recently passed, which allows regions in the state to form special taxing districts for this type of thing.

Kids First is funded by half of a 0.45% sales tax, which brings in just over $2.4 million annually.

It pays for financial assistance for between 40 and 50 qualifying families to help pay for licensed child care in Pitkin County, along with funding for quality improvements, staff development, operations and many other programs, said Ritter, who is involved in the coalition.

Also supported by the Aspen Community Foundation, the coalition is made up of a group of 17 business, education and nonprofit community leaders from Aspen to Parachute.

It was formed in 2016 but only is in the initial stages of work to determine how great the need is and who would pay for addressing it.

The coalition began with hiring a Denver firm to conduct phone surveys. Since February, representatives and consultants have been meeting with business and community leaders to start the conversation.

“It’s a heavy lift,” Kahn said. “There are so many perspectives.”

Ritter, Kahn and others wonder if Aspen to Parachute is too large of an area and has too many barriers to getting a special district formed.

“The big question is what that special taxing district would look like,” Ritter said. “There’s a lot of conversation needed and a lot more people involved. …

“Maybe with enough political will, people will find the money.”

It was an issue brought up in Aspen’s most recent municipal election in which mayoral candidates Torre and Ann Mullins said it was a priority for them to work on bringing more affordable child care options to the city.

Mayor-elect Torre will be sworn in June 10 and Mullins has two years left as a council member.

Those at the ACRA board meeting agreed that it is a significant problem that affects their employees, the overall job market and the community.

“I think it’s going to be interesting to have another level of taxation here beyond Kids First,” ACRA board member and Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper said. “I think it’s a discussion that is long overdue.”

Davies noted the 600 new homes that are being planned in the midvalley and how the region will continue to grow exacerbates the issue.

“It’s a real problem and it’s not an easy problem to fix,” she told the ACRA board.

Davies said she lived here in the 1990s but moved away to have a family and now is back after raising children in Minnesota.

“A lot of people do drop out of the workforce,” she said of young families who cannot afford or find child care.

The coalition will meet again in June to assess what it’s learned thus far. Kahn said there is no timeline on pursuing a new tax.

“We are just going to be fluid,” she said, adding it’s a big issue that requires a holistic approach. “Let’s get something. Our parents need it. Our community needs it. Our society needs it.”