School district wants a tax hike, too
July 20, 2005
The Aspen School District, in addition to its plan to build a new middle school (see related story), wants to raise taxes just enough to provide an additional $700,000 per year in revenues.Ballot question 3A in the Nov. election asks voters to approve the tax hike as a “mill levy override,” meaning it would allow the district to raise the tax rate enough to collect exactly that much money. Sirko and the district’s financial advisors have estimated that the tax hike would mean an additional $39 per year in taxes for a $1 million home.The money, according to ASD Superintendent Diana Sirko, is to be used for a variety of programs and other purposes intended to shore up the district’s “competitiveness” in attracting teachers and its ability to provide the educational opportunities that the community wants.One purpose for the tax hike, Sirko said, is to make the district’s teaching salaries “more competitive” as measured against salaries paid by other districts. She said that, for example, the base teaching salary paid by the Roaring Fork School District Re-1, which includes Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt, is slightly higher than Aspen’s, thanks to last year’s tax hike in the downvalley district.Sirko said “at least 25 percent” of the $700,000 would go toward salaries.First on the list of proposed specific uses for the money, Sirko said, is permanent funding for the “math specialists” program, which last year was paid for with a grant from the Aspen Education Foundation. Sirko said the program, which is believed to have boosted students’ performance in mathematics, costs about $220,000 a year.”It’s such a key component of the instructional program, it shouldn’t be a grant item,” Sirko said. She feels foundation grants are better suited to one-time expenses or short-term projects than for ongoing instructional programs.Also, Sirko said, “we need to expand our English as a Second Language program, to provide more intensive instruction, more small-group instruction.” And that will likely mean hiring additional staff.Lastly, Sirko said, “We would like to add to our fine arts staff.” She said the high school currently shares teachers and facilities with the elementary and middle schools for band and orchestra, choir and speech, and art, which she said restricts the number of classes and scheduling flexibility for those classes.Noting that the district has been forced to cut more than $996,000 from its budget over the past couple of years to deal with funding shortfalls, Sirko put in a plug for two state ballot questions, Referenda C and D, which are being touted as budgetary salvation for education, roads, and other state expenses.”If Refs. C and D don’t pass, it could get pretty ugly,” she said, calling the local ballot measure, Ref. A, “our only way to kind of hedge our bets against all that.”The last time the district asked for more money was in November 2001.According to district finance officer Bill Anuszewski, that election “was not technically an override” of the mill levy. He said it was a supplemental cost-of-living measure that was allowed under state law, as a result of the State Legislature short-changing school districts from 1995 through 2001.This, said Anuszewski, meant that the Aspen School District, for instance, was “underfunded” by approximately $1.2 million per year.Threatened with lawsuits, the legislature passed a law allowing districts to make up the shortfall by going to the voters. The extra revenues, just shy of $1.2 million per year, have been used to supplement teacher salaries.The last “pure” override, said Anuszewski, was in November, 1998, when voters allowed the district to raise an additional $741,308 per year. The money, he said, was to protect the district’s operating reserves from constant “draw-downs” to cover budget shortfalls, and to boost teacher salaries.