Survey: School district will face uphill battle | AspenTimes.com

Survey: School district will face uphill battle

John Colson

Only about 52 percent of Aspen School District taxpayers favor a tax hike to rebuild one of the local schools, according to a recent survey of district residents.And that level of support, according to the group that conducted the survey, falls below [the] 58 percent threshold indicative of likely passage of a proposed $33 million bond.Its the number that were going to be challenged to work on, thats for sure, Superintendent Diana Sirko predicted Monday, a few hours before a meeting of the school board.But the telephone survey of 304 district taxpayers showed overwhelming support for a mill levy override proposal that would give the district an additional $700,000 a year in operating revenues.The survey results were discussed at an Aug. 15 school board meeting; the board decided Monday to ask voters to approve both tax questions in the November general election.The district is seeking voter approval to pay the costs of replacing the aging Aspen Middle School. The school is more than three decades old, and teachers, students and administrators have called it the dungeon because of its paucity of windows and general lack of aesthetically pleasing features. Both Aspen Elementary and Aspen High have been replaced by more modern facilities in recent years.The survey, conducted in July by Hill Research Consultants, showed that while 33 percent of respondents were strongly in favor of the proposed Aspen Middle School replacement project, slightly fewer, 27 percent, were just as strongly against the idea. Among those holding somewhat less emphatic opinions, 19 percent were simply for the proposed school replacement project, while 14 percent were merely against it.Looking strictly at the mill levy override proposal, which would give the district an additional $700,000 in tax revenues per year, 70 percent of respondents said they would support it, with only 23 percent against.The districts bond consultant, Dain Rauscher of Denver, commissioned the survey on the authority of the district administration and a special Assets Committee set up to investigate the facility improvement issues.The survey, which took place over four days and involved interviews that lasted an average of 18 minutes per respondent, showed that some 71 percent gave the school district an A or a B grade for performance, but that a growing number of voters are concerned about whether the district is headed in the right direction.The survey data given to the school board indicated the percentage of local voters who feel the district is moving in the right direction has dropped from 63 percent in the year 2000 to 56 percent today, while those who feel it is moving in the wrong direction have climbed from 11 percent in 2000 to 15 percent today. Nearly a third of those surveyed in July said they had no opinion on the matter.A total of 55 percent felt that Pitkin County is in somewhat better (42 percent) or much better (13 percent) economic shape than it was a year ago, and more than half (53 percent) said they were either not at all (31 percent) or not very (22 percent) concerned over the districts plans to raise taxes.In addition, those who feel the local and school taxes are too low today (19 percent) barely outstripped those who think they are too high already (17 percent.) Some 55 percent said they feel the taxes are about right.Other findings reported from the survey included: A general agreement (73 percent) that the school district should focus less on building programs and instead try to improve teachers pay and benefits so they can afford to live in Aspen; support for bringing out-of-district students to Aspen (66 percent) because it helps employers, increases diversity in our schools and increases state funding; and a widespread feeling (65 percent) that the district has been improving standardized test performance among students, and that it spends taxpayer money wisely (62 percent).Still, 67 percent of respondents said the local schools need to offer all students more rigorous and demanding course work, according to a survey summary the district issued.John Colsons e-mail address is jcolson@aspentimes.com