Overcrowded and outdated | AspenTimes.com

Overcrowded and outdated

John Colson

Principal Paula Canning descends a spiral stairway at Aspen Middle School. ( Mark Fox/Aspen Times Weekly)

The Aspen School District wants to build a new Aspen Middle School and make a few improvements to the Aspen Elementary School, and district officials say they need $33 million to do it.Surprisingly, for a proposal with a sizable price tag, there seems to be no organized opposition to the district’s proposal. But some Aspenites have raised questions.Skeptics question the ability of the school board to oversee such a massive project. The board will lose more than three decades worth of experience when longtime members Alice Davis, Fred Peirce and Jon Siegle step down in January 2006, due to term limits. No one on the new board will have more than two years of experience.There also are suspicions that the district is beefing up overall capacity in order to admit more out-of-district students and reap the additional per-student funding from the state.District officials deny any such intentions, and point to the middle school’s 35-year-old, outdated design and dilapidated condition to justify their request. Furthermore, all of the candidates running for school board seats say they support the district’s “executive limitation” policy that caps the district’s student population at 1,500, or 500 students per building (elementary, middle and high schools), at the combined campus on Maroon Creek Road.As for the argument that the board will be too “green” to cope with a major construction project, supporters of the district’s plans note that the board makes district policy, but does not oversee construction projects. Current board members and candidates for the three open seats on the board have all expressed confidence in Superintendent Diana Sirko and her staff.

The middle school replacement, projected to cost $22.5 million, is the biggest part of a $33 million financing package sought by the school district in the Nov. 1 general election.The remainder of the money is for five new classrooms at the 15-year old Aspen Elementary School ($2.6 million); facility upgrades and a new entrance/lobby for the District Theatre, also at AES ($1.7 million); a new roof for AES ($700,000); and a big-ticket price tag for furnishings, fixtures, technology and other equipment, as well as payment of the development review fees charged by local governments ($5.5 million).All this money is to be raised by selling general obligation bonds to investors, who will be paid back with up to $58.8 million in interest and principal over the 20-year life of the bond.It’s a complicated set of requests, made only more so by the fact that the district also is asking voters to approve a $700,000 “mill levy override,” which would allow the district to raise taxes slightly to cover certain operating costs – regardless of whether the $33 million project is approved. The two issues are unrelated, aside from sharing the same ballot.The new school, under the district’s plan, would be an L-shaped structure wrapped around two sides of the existing school, so that students could still attend classes while the new school was under construction.Project consultants say the new school would have a much larger playground area, oriented to face Aspen Highlands; every classroom would have windows with views of the surrounding terrain; the building’s mechanical equipment would be modern and energy-efficient; and while the project isn’t meant to increase student enrollment, there would be 28 percent more usable instructional space than in the current school.Teachers, administrators and even some students recite a litany of complaints about the existing school, from basic issues such as a heating system that does not uniformly warm the whole building, to the fact that one section of the roof has been destabilized by the vibration of the giant heating/air conditioning fans. Between the resulting leaks and the noise, it was deemed best to simply turn the fans off, leaving the school’s special education classrooms without adequate air circulation.

The Aspen Middle School was built in 1971, and designed along the “open classroom” concept in vogue at the time. The idea, inspired by British models of interdisciplinary education, was that classes would take place in large, open spaces without walls dividing one class from another. Fewer hallways meant more space for instructional use, and the lack of walls made for greater accessibility. In theory, at least, these design changes also resulted in more efficient energy use.But the “open school” idea fell out of favor by the 1980s for a variety of reasons. A June 2003 report in the American School Board Journal noted that the “open school” designs usually involved flat roofs, which do not function well in frequent rain and snow; and multiple entrances, which created security problems. Aspen Middle School, said Principal Paula Canning, suffers from both drawbacks.”All of these things drain budgets, present safety issues and divert funds from where they should be spent – on the education of students,” stated the ASBJ article.The real impetus behind the popularity of this kind of school, continued the report, was that such designs were inexpensive to build at a time when school districts were faced with rapidly rising enrollments.”We tried to sell the [open classroom] concept on the basis that it enhanced education,” admitted C. William Day, senior analyst for KBD Planning Group Inc. of Bloomington, Ind., in the article. “We used that as a smoke screen.”As a result, the article concluded, school districts around the country are facing either significant remodels or complete replacements for these 30- to 40-year-old schools.

The Aspen Times recently took a tour of the Aspen Middle School building, spending about 90 minutes wandering the halls, poking into rooms and checking out office spaces. The overall impressions were of moderate dilapidation and a kind of comfortable chaos. Some students said they don’t mind the school, but others clearly found it awkward and out of date.”The school just looks kind of older, more sixties-like,” said 7th-grader Kaycee Huntsman.Said 6th-grader Kate Dowley: “Everything’s too cramped.” A new school could be “better, sort of, organized.”For Principal Canning, safety is a primary concern. “There are so many entrances, we can’t keep track … we can’t lock down the school … we can’t see who is coming into the building.”From the main office, she pointed out, secretaries and administrators have only a limited view of the closest hallway, thanks to a glass-brick wall.Another serious problem, Canning said, is the school’s plumbing. Last year, she said, a drain in the band-room floor started bubbling with sewage. The custodial staff plugged that hole with concrete, but the bubbling mess simply moved to the special education classroom next door. Canning said they had to plug the drains in several classrooms before the bubbling apparently ceased and the problem moved to a back burner.The school’s art classes are held in a modular building at the edge of the playground, where there is no water hookup. To mix paints, students must carry buckets of water from a nearby janitor’s closet. For a while, classes were held in a classroom at the elementary school, but they have since moved back.Down at the school’s lowest level, a room in which the only exterior window looks out at a sunken courtyard serves as the choir room.Last year, there was no choir room, said instructor Paul Dankers, explaining that what is now the choir room was used for French language classes. French class, however, was moved to a modular building in order to provide a place for choral and music instruction.Although grateful to have a room for choir practices and instruction, Dankers noted that the room is not close to either the District Theatre or the high school’s Black Box Theatre. That means, he said, that shuffling large instruments, such as the piano, from one venue to another is impossible on short notice, and difficult at any time, making the room less than ideal for music students.Plus, Danker said, he doesn’t have enough computers for students to use in music composition lessons. He should have 15 terminals, which would be “like having another teacher in the room.” Then he could help students having trouble in one area, while more advanced students could study composition in another.Instead, he has a half-dozen computers, and some are so old that it takes them 10 minutes to warm up for use. Dankers also lamented the lack of a “hub” so his computers could be networked and students could work jointly on projects.

“We aren’t wired,” Canning said simply, and retrofitting the school for computers has been difficult due to the building’s cinderblock construction.Ventilation is another much-discussed problem. Dankers remarked that it gets “very, very hot” in the choir room on sunny afternoons, due to solar gain and the lack of windows and doors for cross-ventilation.Up on the top floor, Dana Hebert’s 7th grade language, reading and social studies classroom gets superheated during the winter months when the furnaces run at full blast.”The kids take off their shoes in the middle of winter,” she joked. Others told stories of kids coming to classes with a change of clothes better suited to tropical climes. Hebert said she often keeps the doors open, and that the desks “literally will feel hot to the touch.”Meanwhile, on the other side of the school, for reasons that seem to have eluded the district’s maintenance staff, classrooms become refrigerators during the winter months.Canning maintained this atmospheric discrepancy arose when the school was remodeled, and its open format was partitioned into multiple teaching spaces. In the process, she surmised, the heating vents ended up serving only a select number of small rooms instead of the larger, more open spaces they were designed for.The “staff lounge,” located next to the administrative offices and with a balcony overlooking the cafeteria, is little more than a large closet with a four-person table, a window, refrigerator and sink.”Not very conducive to staff meetings,” Canning remarked dryly.

Moving to the school cafeteria, Canning said the cavernous room is too dark “by today’s standards,” even with a skylight some 40 feet above the tables. Still, the cafeteria is functionally “one of the best rooms we have” because it doubles as a classroom.In fact, the entire school is rather cold, dark and cramped, Canning said.”It’s not a windowless building,” she said. “They (the windows) just don’t look at anything.” The large windows in one second-floor classroom, for example, look out at a loading dock and parking area. The windows of the school gymnasium, which is below ground level, look out at a wall of grass.”It’s kind of dark most of the time,” mused 8th-grader Rachel Bielinski. “I think we could do with some color, ’cause everything’s gray.”Canning pointed out many “dead spaces,” intersections sandwiched between classrooms created by movable walls. These spaces, usually square and small, get too much traffic to be used for instruction or storage, Canning maintained.Holly Baker, who teaches in the Gifted and Talented program for fifth- and sixth-grade math students, teaches in her cramped office as well as in the cafeteria, where “acoustically, it’s terrible.” She noted that many former teaching offices have been transformed into classrooms, declaring, “the teachers have given up all the space they can give up … every inch is gone.”Walking along a hallway toward one of the school’s two central staircases, the tour group is treated to the piping call of a young student crying out, “Our school is too small.”The litany goes on, and probably could fill a small book.

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In answer to these and other complaints, the school district is asking for money to build an entirely new school.A remodeling project was carefully considered by the district’s Asset Committee, but would have cost between $12 million and $14 million. And the building would have required another remodel or replacement within 10 or 15 years, according to Sirko.Instead, the school board is betting that taxpayers will agree to raise their property taxes in order to build a school that Sirko has predicted will last the district “30 to 50 years.” The tax increase would mean an additional $144 per year for the owner of a $1 million home, according to the district’s bond consultant, Terry Casey of Denver-based Dain Rauscher.And as an enticement for taxpayers, Hutton Ford Architects of Denver and Studio B of Aspen have crafted a plan to build the new school in an L-shape that wraps around the existing school.The benefits of the $22.5 million replacement plan are two-fold, according to Sirko.First, middle school students would continue to attend their old school during construction, eliminating the need for modular classrooms on an already crowded campus.Second, once the new building is completed, the old one would be torn down and replaced by a modern, spacious playground. The existing one is essentially a cramped expanse of asphalt on the basement level of the middle school’s north end, hemmed in by the dirt slopes leading to higher ground.”The playground definitely needs the most improvement,” said 6th-grader Mateo Garofalo, when asked about his school.The new playground would face the elementary and high school buildings, with views of Aspen Highlands and the area beyond. At three times the size of the old asphalt play area, said architect Paul Hutton, the new playground would also be on the south side of the school, basking in sunlight for much of the day; the existing pad is mostly shaded and tends to accumulate ice and snow.

The new school would be built in three stories, versus today’s two stories, and would have 24 “basic classrooms,” as opposed to 22, said Hutton. It also would have 18 “specialty” classrooms, for art, music, computer sciences and special education, versus 11 such rooms in the existing school.Improvements also include a larger library and “greatly improved staff work/support areas,” wrote Hutton in an e-mail.Overall, he said, the new building would have 78,181 square feet of “net usable space,” an increase of about 28 percent over today’s 59,392 square feet.The new building has been designed with energy efficiency in mind, Hutton noted, and the design team intends to involve Aspen’s Community Office of Resource Efficiency and other experts in the process, Hutton said. This is welcome news to some who feel the school district blew it with the new Aspen High School, which bond skeptic Colleen Burrows recently labeled “an energy pig.””I’m concerned, because at the high school, we didn’t get the green building from the get-go,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper, who sits on CORE’s board of directors. She was pleased to hear that the middle school design team plans to incorporate green design elements.Among the plans now being considered, Hutton said, are windows that make day-lighting an option in every classroom, better insulation and heat retention; high-efficiency electric lighting to cut electric consumption, “low-flow plumbing fixtures and possibly waterless urinals”; solar panels on the roof, and other technology.”At this early stage in the design process,” Hutton wrote, “it is difficult to predict how many of these features, or exactly which ones, will be included.” Such decisions, he said, will be made only if the project wins voter approval.John Colson’s e-mail address is jcolson@aspentimes.com.