Referendums to improve Aspen schools, advocates say |

Referendums to improve Aspen schools, advocates say

Katie Redding
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

ASPEN ” Supporters of Referendum 3A say that it will help the Aspen School District keep its technology infrastructure and buses up-to-date. Detractors say the district needs to better explain why it needs more money.

The question asks permission to raise property taxes by $1.5 million annually for three years in order to fund technology needs and transportation expenses. If the mill levy override passes, the annual tax increase on a $3.3 million house ” the median house price in the district ” would be $154.

This mill levy override request takes advantage of an amendment to the state constitution that allows Colorado school districts to bypass strict TABOR tax increase restrictions in order to meet technology and transportation costs, which are rising ahead of other school district costs.

On the technology side, the school board has argued that the district needs the funds to purchase and maintain technology infrastructure, including computer, video and telecommunications programs. Superintendent Diana Sirko noted, for example, that the department laptops, which teachers pass out to students for computer-based classes, must be replaced every three or four years.

On the transportation side ” through the employment of some tricky accounting ” the funds ultimately will be used to purchase new school buses. Though technically the funds are designed to help districts meet rising annual costs ” such as the cost of gas ” the school board has said that by covering some of its annual $650,000 transportation budget with these funds, it will be able to tuck away general fund monies to replace aging buses. Several of the buses purchased in the mid-80s and early 90s have grown old and are in need of replacement, said Sirko.

Although the money will be collected over three years, the school board has said it hopes to spread the money over approximately five years. Sirko has pointed out that after a similar bond passed in the late 90s, the district was able to spread the money out over approximately 8 years.

While there is no organized opposition to the referendum, Aspen resident Donald Davidson volunteered to explain why he will be voting “no.” He argued against the tax increase on the grounds that the school district hasn’t clearly explained its need for more technology and transportation money.

“I don’t feel that they have made a good case for it,” he said.

Published election material, he said, doesn’t tell the voter much at all. And in general, he feels he just doesn’t have a feel for the current state of the district’s technology or buses.

ASPEN ” Supporters of Referendum 3B say that the Aspen School District needs to build more housing in order to ensure its ability to attract and retain high-quality teachers.

Detractors say that if the district wants to ask for $12 million, it needs to explain exactly why it needs that amount and provide a plan for spending it.

Referendum 3B requests permission to sell bonds valued at $12 million (and repayable at a cost of up to $21.6 million) to build or buy teacher housing. If it passes, the annual tax increase on a $3.3 million house ” the median price in the district ” would be $42.

Lack of teacher housing has been a long-standing issue for the district, and continues to make it difficult to hire and retain qualified staff, Superintendent Diana Sirko has said.

Some incoming hires are forced to renege on their contracts each year when they cannot find a place to live, school board president Elizabeth Parker noted at a recent meeting between the school board and Pitkin County commissioners. She added that other teachers stay a few years and then leave, saying they love the area but can’t envision ever being able to afford to live here. With only 20 affordable units, she explained, the district isn’t able to meet the needs of its roughly 200 staff members.

Parker also noted that the community seems to understand that the lack of teacher housing is a serious issue the district faces. In a recent survey, respondents identified teachers and pay as the district’s biggest problem, with teacher housing next.

As written, the bond issue does not says where the housing will be built, nor does it provide specifics on the purchase.

Aspen resident Donald Davidson said that is a problem. Davidson volunteered to explain why he will be voting “no” on this issue since there is no formal opposition to it.

Davidson argued that the district has asked for the money without clearly stating what it will spend the money on or why it needs this particular amount. Although it has made mention of several possible projects, he said ” including building at their West Ranch property and buying Burlingame units ” none are “beyond the talking stage,” he argued.

“I haven’t seen anything that says ‘we need x number of units and this is how much each unit will cost,'” he said. “It’s not a plan; it’s giving government a blank check.”

Davidson said that he strongly believes in building affordable housing for teachers. He just does not believe in giving government money without a solid plan, he said.

“Once they come forward with a good plan, I’ll vote for it,” he said. “But I won’t vote for this.”

Davidson, a member of Aspen’s Citizens Budget Task Force, said that after closely examining the first phase of Burlingame, he has decided that the city housing project would hav e been better executed if it had been more substantively planned in advance. He has come to believe, he said, that when a government entity has to come before the voters with a plan in order to ask for money, the ensuing discussion allows the plan to be fully vetted by the voters.

Another concern has been raised by some Pitkin County commissioners. Although none of the commissioners have opposed the bond, or teacher housing in general, several have expressed concern about the school board’s stated goal of spending roughly half the money to construct additional housing at the district’s West Ranch property in Woody Creek ” outside the county growth boundary.

Because the school district is not subject to county building codes, it can build outside the growth boundary if it wants to do so. Moreover, school board members have argued that the Woody Creek property is the district’s best option for building cost-effective housing for as many teachers as possible. The district already owns approximately five acres there, next to 10 townhouses it built in 2000.

At a recent joint meeting Commissioner Jack Hatfield suggested the district sell its five acres and buy housing inside the urban growth boundary. However, school board member Ernie Fyrwald noted that a sale of the five-acre lot simply wouldn’t generate enough income to purchase enough housing within the urban growth boundary.

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