School district to ask voters to replace AMS | AspenTimes.com

School district to ask voters to replace AMS

John Colson

The Aspen School District will ask taxpayers in November to approve $33 million in bonds to replace the aging Aspen Middle School and improve the 15-year old Aspen Elementary School.The school board on Monday night voted unanimously to put two tax-related questions on the November general ballot, despite a recent poll that showed relatively thin support for the proposal (see related story on the survey results).One question will ask voters to approve a mill levy override, which, based on the sale of general obligation bonds, would give the school $700,000 in additional operating revenues annually.The other would authorize the issuance of bonds worth $33 million – with a repayment price tag of up to $58.8 million, including interest and fees – to build a new middle school and make improvements at the elementary school. If approved in November, the bonds would mean a tax increase of about $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.Supporters of the middle school project say the new three-story building will have windows in every classroom, more outside play space for students, and better traffic circulation and ventilation.The actual cost of replacing AMS, which is more than three decades old and was designed for what educators say is an outmoded “open-classroom” style of education, will be approximately $22.5 million.Part of the Aspen Elementary School project, costing $1.5 million or more, will be the addition of roughly 6,500 square feet of classroom space, which district officials say is needed to “reclaim” classrooms that are being used for different educational purposes than they were designed for.Dance and music programs – which currently take place in gymnasiums and other spaces – are slated for reclamation, as are classes for English Language Learners – a part of the student population that has grown considerably since construction of the school in 1990.Board member Laura Kornasiewicz worried about what she termed “the misperception that our intent is to build for out-of-district students.””We’re making cuts,” board member Sally Hansen agreed. “We need this money.”As part of the AES improvements, the district plans to rework some of the Aspen District Theatre facility, which the schools and community groups use, to the tune of about $3 million. The changes to the theater do not involve the addition of seats, but instead have to do with safety concerns, the adequacy of bathrooms, and a desire to redesign the lobby of the theater “to get it out of the middle of the entrance to the school,” in the words of board member Jon Seigle.The remaining 20 percent of the $33 million bond issue would pay the “soft costs” of designing the two projects and getting them set for the construction phase.The board spent much of its meeting Monday debating the relative value of renovating the existing middle school, at a cost of roughly $12 million.But architect Paul Hutton, of the Hutton Ford firm in Denver, argued that renovation would not result in the kind of school that the board is hoping to provide to students. Many classrooms still would have no windows or, if they had windows, no good views; outdoor play facilities would still be what he called “frankly miserable,” and the building’s outmoded design would still be a problem for such matters as internal circulation and ventilation.Teachers at the meeting agreed with the need for a new school, for reasons including those Hutton outlined.As the board prepared to put the questions on the ballot, board member Hansen cautioned, “This is not a slam dunk. It is going to be totally based on who’s running the show” in terms of convincing voters that the tax increases are necessary.Superintendent Diana Sirko concurred, noting that a recent poll of district voters “showed us it’s an uphill struggle” to win voter approval.Dain Rauscher’s Casey said if the district did not ask for bonding authority next year, taxes on a million-dollar home would actually drop by about $25. He said that figure is based on an estimated 4.6 percent increase in the district’s assessed valuation, to about $1.699 billion in 2006.John Colson’s e-mail address is jcolson@aspentimes.com