RFSD leaders explain housing, Eastbank school plans
October 19, 2015
Why does the Roaring Fork School District want to get into the affordable-housing business?
District officials had the opportunity Thursday evening to answer this and other touchy questions about the $122 million bond proposal they've placed on the Nov. 3 ballot. The measure, essentially a collection of the district's highest-priority capital projects, includes $15 million to provide housing for teachers and other staff members in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, with $5 million for each community.
During the election forum, hosted by KDNK and the Sopris Sun at the radio station in Carbondale, KDNK News Director January Jones asked the panelists — Shannon Pelland, chief financial officer for the district, and school board member Matt Hamilton — why the school district is branching into housing.
"We have a responsibility to our voters to recruit and retain good teachers," Hamilton said.
By providing entry-level housing to staff members, district officials hope to slow the turnover that occurs whenever rank-and-file employees realize their wages can't keep pace with the Roaring Fork Valley's high cost of living.
"We don't really want to be in the housing business," Pelland said, but she has served on "countless committees and commissions" that have unsuccessfully tackled the housing problem while the district has continued to lose good teachers. State laws strictly limit school districts' operating expenses, so the district has been unable to address the problem on its own.
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"One advantage of owning these units outright is that it will give us a revenue stream of rental income," Pelland said, which the district can use to create more housing opportunities.
The Aspen School District already has a housing program, Hamilton said, and the Roaring Fork School District plans to seek help if it pursues this new venture. "We know there are experts in this valley who we can rely on and learn from," he said.
Housing was just one aspect of the bond proposal that has drawn questions from the public. No organized opposition has emerged against Question 3B, and only one member of the general public showed up at Thursday's forum. But Jones and other members of the media posed questions they had heard from residents.
The largest project included in the bond is the $34.5 million Eastbank school, a pre-K-to-eighth-grade facility planned near Orrison Distributing south of Glenwood. This new school is needed, officials say, to relieve overcrowding at other schools and to give the 320 students who live between Glenwood and Carbondale their own school. Over the past two decades, neighborhoods from Buffalo Valley to Aspen Glen have filled with new families and more homes are planned.
Asked if the new school will accelerate suburban sprawl, Hamilton, Aspen Skiing Co.'s sustainability director, admitted that he wrestled with the issue.
"Think about what's gone on in that part of the valley already," he said. "I don't believe we're forcing sprawl. I believe what we're doing is providing a school for neighborhoods that already exist."
Hamilton also explained that busing kids from those areas has become problematic. Pinyon Mesa children now board a district bus at 6:24 a.m. and arrive at Sopris elementary at 7:49, he said, so their round trip to and from school takes three hours. Providing a new school for those children is the district's responsibility, he said.
Both Pelland and Hamilton agreed that the $122 million bond, which would upgrade and replace old buildings, consolidate bus facilities and create new, secure entryways, is ambitious. If the measure wins approval, residential property owners would see an annual increase of $55 for every $100,000 of assessed value on their tax bill.
But district officials had several things in mind when they decided to pursue the measure this year. First, Hamilton said, the state has offered $9.1 million to help renovate Glenwood Springs Elementary School, and the district must raise $20 million to capture the state grant. Second, construction costs are on the rise, so the district's needs will only become more expensive.
"We know it's a big ask, but we knew it would be bigger ask if we waited another year," he said.
Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on education coverage. For more, go to www.aspenjournalism.org.