Schools find low resistance to tax plan | AspenTimes.com

Schools find low resistance to tax plan

John Colson

A grand total of six citizens have shown up at three recent informational meetings to talk about the Aspen School District’s plans to raise taxes.The tax increases would, among other things, build a new Aspen Middle School. School officials say they hope that the lack of attendance means the public generally supports the district’s plans.But privately some worry that it might mean something else entirely – a groundswell of opposition fueled by notions that are preconceived, inaccurate, or both, and solidified by a general distrust of government.At the most recent meeting, most questions had to do with an issue that the Aspen School District considers irrelevant and unanswerable – whether the district may someday increase classroom sizes despite what one official called “a clear directive” to stick to small classes.At an Oct. 7 meeting at the Aspen Elementary School’s District Theater, Superintendent Diana Sirko emphasized repeatedly that as things now stand, class sizes will stay the same – as will the overall district’s student population – if taxpayers pass referenda 3A and 3B on Nov. 1. But she and current school board members have conceded that there is no way, other than elections, to tie the hands of future boards where policy matters are concerned. In the Nov. 1 election, Referendum 3A will ask taxpayers to permit the district to raise taxes enough to generate $700,000 per year in additional revenues, to pay such things as teacher salaries and educational program costs.Referendum 3B asks taxpayers to allow the district to sell bonds valued at $33 million (and repayable at a cost of up to $58.8 million) to build a new middle school ($22.5 million), add five classrooms to the elementary school ($2.6 million), make changes and improvements to the District Theatre facility ($1.7 million), replace the elementary school roof ($.7 million), and buy furniture, fixtures, technology and other equipment, as well as pay development fees ($5.5 million.)As part of a one-hour presentation, Sirko noted that each of the three buildings on the public school campus is “staffed for 500 students,” with class sizes that range from 16-18 students in grades K-2; 18-20 per class in grades 3 and 4; and an average of 22 students per class at the “secondary level.”She also said that new classrooms at AES, and the reorganized, slightly expanded instructional spaces at a new AMS, are not meant to accommodate a boost in enrollment.In the case of AES, the new classrooms would allow the district to reclaim specially designated rooms, such as a dance studio and a “special needs” classroom, that had to be turned into regular classrooms when enrollments increased and class sizes decreased in recent years.At the middle school, officials say that any increase in overall square footage is to create better instructional spaces, not to make room for more students.Sirko noted that the smaller class sizes now in force were determined by a task force of educators and parents, and that the task force recommendations were a “very clear directive” to the district that the school board endorsed and adopted two years ago.Sirko noted that the overall district population is now near its maximum total of 1,500 students – roughly 500 each at Aspen High School, Aspen Middle School and Aspen Elementary School, all of which are located on the 26-acre campus on Maroon Creek Road. She said the staffing is “a capacity limiter” because the district would have to hire more teachers in order to raise the student population.The district also accommodates 320 “choice” students – out-of-district students who live within the Roaring Fork Re-1 School District (Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs) but whose parents have chosen to send them to Aspen schools.One man, who did not give his name, demanded to know what can guarantee that, if the new middle school is built and five new classrooms are added to AES, the school board won’t decide to allow more “choice” students. He noted that for every “choice” student admitted into the Aspen schools, the district reaps an additional $8,000 per year in state funding.For example, given its current population of “choice” students, the district receives approximately $2.6 million in revenues each year to cover the costs of educating those students.The projections for additional space at the elementary and middle schools, according to the questioner, “is an opportunity for future boards … to say, ‘We’ve got the room, let’s bring in the other students.'”Board president Laura Kornnasiewicz responded that such issues are what elections are for.”The community has the power to elect those people who are going to best reflect your values,” she said.Local political activist Toni Kronberg asked Sirko why the district has not come out in favor of increasing the district’s capacity, given recent approvals of the Burlingame affordable housing project and other increases in the affordable housing inventory, which conceivably will mean more kids in the local schools.Sirko said there is no clear indication about what the added affordable housing might mean for the school district, given the belief that people who ultimately move into Burlingame will mostly be people who already live in the upper valley.But, Sirko noted, the 320 “choice” students represent a buffer of sorts. If the in-district student population grows, that growth can be offset by cuts in the numbers of “choice” students, allowing the district to stick to its 500-per-school target.Kornnasiewicz, who was on the task force that adopted the class-size directive and will be on the school board for another two years, at least, said about the class size issue, “It is my intention … to hold firm on that.”The next informational meeting about the ballot questions will be at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Aspen High School.John Colson’s e-mail address is jcolson@aspentimes.com