Skeptics raise questions for school board | AspenTimes.com

Skeptics raise questions for school board

John Colson

Andrew Kole, left, and Roger Marolt discuss the upcoming bond issue to build a new middle school during a Wednesday taping of "The Andrew Kole Show" on GrassRoots TV. (Mark Fox/The Aspen Times)

No organized opposition has surfaced to fight the Aspen School District’s plans to build a new middle school on the public schools campus just outside town.But questions have been raised regarding a number of issues related to the timing of the project, including doubts whether what one parent called “a very green school board” should take on such a massive project as its first mission.With the Nov. 1 school board election, three new board members will join incumbents Laura Kornasiewicz and Sally Hansen – both elected two years ago – on the five-person board.Longtime board members Alice Davis, Fred Peirce and Jon Seigle are stepping down because of term limits, taking with them 35 years of combined school board service.Hoping to replace the outgoing board members are candidates Charla Belinski, Ernie Fyrwald, Andrew Kole, Bob Langley and Elizabeth Parker, none of whom has served on a public school board before.Among others, Aspen Times columnist Roger Marolt has questioned whether it is a good idea for such untried elected officials to take on such a complicated task as building a new school.

“We’re losing a huge amount of experience,” Marolt said during a segment of “The Andrew Kole Show” taped for GrassRoots TV on Wednesday.As for the bond question, the district is asking taxpayers to authorize the sale of $33 million in general obligation bonds, to be paid back at an ultimate cost of $58.8 million.The proceeds of the bond sale are to provide $22.5 million to build a new middle school; $2.6 million to build five new elementary school classrooms; $1.7 million in upgrades to the existing District Theater facility in the elementary school; $700,000 for work on the elementary school roof; and $5.5 million to pay for “furniture, fixtures, technology, equipment and fees,” according to a brochure circulating around town.The brochure is the work of the Building for Excellence Committee, which is supporting a “yes” vote on question 3B, the middle school proposal.At a recent school board meeting, parents raised a number of issues, including: Questions about the financial wisdom of planning such a project now, when some financial analysts have suggested the national economy might well take a recessionary dive in the next couple of years

Concern that building new elementary classrooms could result in increased student capacity that could in turn accommodate an increasing number of out-of-district students. There are now approximately 320 students who live downvalley attending Aspen schools, equaling roughly 20 percent of the Aspen district’s enrollment.Local preschool operator Mare Wolfer-Jenkins, who has two children in the public schools now and two more of preschool age, spoke at the Sept. 26 school board meeting, raising those two questions as well as others. She said she was speaking on behalf of a number of area parents who had posed the same questions.”My major concern is the possible addition of capacity,” she told the board. She asked if the current board could guarantee that the “premise of building the proposed classrooms” should never be reinterpreted to include the idea of expanding the district’s student population.She said many parents are concerned about the possibility that the district, perhaps during a budget crisis sometime in the future, might decide it needs the financial boost of $8,000 per student in state funding and that the best way to get it is to bring in more out-of-district students.Board member Peirce responded that class size is a matter of “executive limitation,” meaning future school boards could change positions about the optimal size of the district’s classrooms and modify policies to reflect the new idea.Seigle said such issues are best addressed at election time, when voters can demand to know where candidates stand on specific questions.

And board Chairwoman Kornasiewicz pointed to the district’s stated policy of maintaining the student population at right around 500 students per school, or about 1,500. If the in-district number of students increases, she and other officials have said, the district can simply cut back on the number of out-of-district students it allows to come to Aspen’s schools.District officials have maintained that the new elementary school classrooms are meant to “reclaim” spaces originally built for certain specialized uses but that have been converted to classrooms as the student population has grown and academic priorities have changed. Kornasiewicz suggested parents needing further information about the proposed construction projects, or about other school-related matters, should attend one or more of the district-sponsored information sessions.The second of a series of these sessions is at 10 a.m. Friday at Aspen Elementary School. Another session is planned for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Aspen High School, and another on Oct. 18 at the elementary school.A tape of the Sept. 26 school board meeting is scheduled to air on GrassRoots TV Channel 12 at 6 p.m. Monday and again at 1 a.m. Oct. 14. Wolfer-Jenkins said anyone interested in a packet of questions she compiled to present to the school board can pick one up at the information desk at the Yellow Brick School, at the corner of Hallam and Garmisch streets, which is the location of her preschool.John Colson’s e-mail address is jcolson@aspentimes.com

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