To each school district according to its needs — sort of

Local school districts see lopsided funding from American Rescue Plan

An Aspen School District bus parked in front of Aspen Middle School on Wednesday, August 26, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Colorado received more than $1.1 billion in federal funding for round three of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) when the American Rescue Plan became law back in March.

But not all school districts got an even slice of the pie, according to an allocation table from the Colorado Department of Education. The difference is as stark here in the Roaring Fork Valley as anywhere else, data shows.

The Roaring Fork School District, which has about 5,300 students enrolled between Basalt and Glenwood Springs, received $4,252,946. Aspen School District, with around 1,600 students, got just $252,056.

So why the great divide?

This round of funding was based on the proportion of funding each state receives in Title 1, Part A funding, which provides resources to schools to help disadvantaged students who may be most at risk of falling behind.

The U.S. Department of Education allocates Title 1-A funding to districts based on census poverty estimates for children ages 5-17 and the cost of education in each state.

Roaring Fork School District received 0.41% of the state’s Title 1-A funding — and, by extension, 0.41% of the state’s ESSER funding — because of all the Colorado students who fall within the federally designated poverty range, around 0.4% of them attend school in the Roaring Fork School District, according to the allocation table.

Same goes for Aspen, where the number of students who fall within the poverty range accounts for closer to 0.02% of all students in that range in the state.

In less abstract terms: think of the number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch programs as a comparable metric, Aspen School District Chief Financial Officer Linda Warhoe said. (Though the numbers aren’t exact apples-to-apples matches for the 2020-21 school year, they’re pretty close.)

But those numbers don’t necessarily account for the higher cost of living specific to Aspen and the surrounding area, according to Warhoe.

“It doesn’t always seem like it’s very fair how the money gets disseminated out to school districts. … All these rules around it lead to a series of misfortune in Aspen if you will,” Warhoe said last week.

In other words, the data doesn’t reflect the actual need for resources in the district. Aspen School District has extra programs in place to fill the gap for students, according to Warhoe, but that does not make a difference when it comes to receiving Title 1-A funding.

She thinks a per-pupil distribution of American Rescue Plan funds would have been a more equitable course of action. The state’s Coronavirus Relief Fund was more in keeping with that methodology; allocation for those funds was based on the total number of pupils in the district while taking into account other factors that represent need in each district.

This latest round of funding is intended to help schools safely reopen (and stay open) and address the COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts on gaps in academic achievement — what some Aspen School District officials have dubbed the “COVID slip.”

In Aspen, the school district will do just that with the creation of a summer learning program that will combine classroom-based academic work with “outdoor activities that will sneak in some learning,” Warhoe said.

“We are really focused on trying to address the educational shortfalls that COVID has caused,” she said.

It will be a first for the district, which has historically not hosted an official summer school-type program, according to Warhoe.

The “BoostCamp” will run on weekdays July 6 through Aug. 6 at Aspen Elementary School; students who will be entering first- through fifth-grade in the fall are eligible to attend. The program costs $400 for all five weeks and scholarships are available; registration is open at

The district brought in a firm to help coordinate the program and hire staff, with the intent of filling the positions with teachers already in the district; the funding will help support payroll costs and subsidize the program for families. Warhoe expects the total cost to come closer to $275,000 or $300,000; the district will pick up the rest of the tab.

As for Roaring Fork School District and its $4.25 million, the district is still evaluating how they will spend that funding and did not yet have specifics to share on Thursday afternoon, Chief Financial Officer Nathan Markham wrote in an email.

“We are currently in the process of assessing the district’s needs so we can put a budget together for (the department of education) to approve,” Markham wrote.