Aspen Times Weekly: What will voters decide on Nov. 7? | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Times Weekly: What will voters decide on Nov. 7?

by Rick Carroll

In her closing remarks at a candidate forum last week, Margeaux Johansson boiled down the election for the Aspen School District's Board of Education into two sentences.

"If the community feels the district is failing our kids, that we don't have great teachers, and the kids are really failing academically, then vote for new blood on the Board of Education," she said. "If, however, the community believes the school district is doing well, their kids are thriving, and that there is a competent financial handle in store, then re-electing the current board members is the way to go."

Johansson, Susan Marolt and Dwayne Romero are incumbent school board members defending their seats in this school board campaign, which has put them on defense of the district's track performance.

Putting them on defense are challengers Jonathan Nickell and Dr. Susan Zimet. The two have argued the Aspen School District is not providing its teachers the proper professional development or adequate pay, students are underachieving as a whole, and the school board spends an unnecessary amount of time focusing on issues outside of the classroom.

"In the last year and a half we have really identified downward trends that were of concern," Zimet said in an interview last week.

Zimet and Nickell are on the District Accountability Committee, which serves as an advisory board to the Board of Education. The two maintain that the BOE hasn't taken much of the DAC's advice, especially in the wake of the school district seeing its Accredited with Distinction lowered in 2016 for what the DAC said was "due to a failure to submit sufficient parental excuses for students who did not take the state standardized assessments."

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For voters in the Nov. 7 election — ballots were mailed out this week — the arguments and findings presented by Nickell and Zimet are a lot to digest, but they are key to their campaign platforms.

The two point to the DAC's recommendations to the BOE earlier this year, including spending $4,000 per year on teacher training, the development of a strategic plan that "sets a clear aspirational vision, initiatives and targets for continuous improvement in the changing educational climate" and taking "deliberate actions to improve school climate and alignment," among other suggestions.

Making the grade?

Nickell and Zimet say they are driven to make the school district the best one in the state, but it won't meet that standard when the high school — even though it ranked at least in the 85th percentile statewide in standardized test scores — rated 15th overall in science, 21st in reading, 18th in math and 15th in English in the 2016 ACT composite scores.

They also cite Aspen Middle School's standardized test scores falling below the 85th percentile in the state, while the Aspen Community School, a charter school also part of the Aspen district, ranked in the 97th percentile for English and 94th percentile for math.

The Aspen Elementary School also needs improvement, they contend, citing its 87th percentile standing in English and a 65th percentile in math 2016. That same year the Community School ranked in the 93rd percentile for English and 74th percentile for math.

The incumbents don't dispute the data. It's there for all to see on the school district's website. They do, however, say it doesn't tell the whole story.

First, the Colorado Department of Education, which took on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests for math and English in 2015, dropped out of the program in June, after the DAC presented its findings to the BOE. The PARCC tests were given to third- through eighth-grade students.

Marolt said those PARCC scores are not relevant today because the tests are no longer administered to Aspen students. She also said critics are remiss to not consider the bigger picture.

"The state standardized tests, the PARCC tests, are not the only tool we use to evaluate students," Marolt said in an interview last week. "There are other tests, the IB exams, ACT exams, which are SATs now. There's a Star test (English, math and early-reading assessments for students), there's final exams in the high school. We use a lot of indicators to see our kids making progress."

Johansson, Marolt and Romero also say the high school's opt-out rate on the standardized tests has skewed the district's overall performance. Up to 60 percent of high school students opted out taking the PARCC tests last school year, Assistant Superintendent Tom Heald said at last week's candidate forum. A 30 percent rise in the enrollment of special-education students at the high school over the past five years also must be factored in, the incumbents have said.

"Here, kids (weren't) committed to that test," Marolt said. "It doesn't do anything for them for college, it doesn't relate directly to whatever class they're taking, so it's harder for them to feel that it's important, so we have parents that opt them out."

During last week's forum, Johansson also said the standardized tests provide a mere snapshot of academic performance by "one kid on one day."

"It's pretty much like putting all your eggs in one basket, if you look only at that … it's just one piece of the puzzle to be used," she said. "The board looks at other data points, we talk to teachers about what's going on in the classroom and about things the tests can't measure, things like project-based learning and the whole child."

Nickell, however, focused on the bottom line.

"The overall percentile rank scores of the school itself are down by an average of 14.5 percentile points," he said at the forum. "So that means we used to be scoring in the 90th percentile on math, science, English language arts, and all those things, and now we're about 76 percent on all those things. So … we've dropped quite a bit."

In a follow-up interview he said the board isn't addressing a real problem: "To fix something, you've got to recognize there is a problem. I think there's been a reluctance to do that."

Said Zimet: "We do not think testing is everything. We think best-teaching practices by teachers is the key to maximizing student learning."

Teacher morale

Also driving the campaign discussion has been teacher morale, retention and pay.

The topic puts Romero in a unique position — his wife teaches at the Community School and she also is a member of the DAC.

"From my view, the system is not broken but the system does require constant energy and input and drive," he said in a recent interview. Romero said he has heard from plenty of teachers that "if I speak out, I might be punished. I might be put on probation. That should not be the tone."

The incumbents say the eroding morale was due chiefly to a lack of leadership at the elementary and high schools, both of which have principals in their second and third years, respectively. Since their arrivals, faculty morale has improved but not to where it should be, they said.

"I absolutely agree that it could be improved," Johansson said in an interview. "It sounds like there are a majority of teachers who are happy, but there is also a significant subset that maybe feel if they speak up at a meeting or say what they truly feel, they will be penalized and that's not OK. Our community needs to be where we can lay our cards on the table and everyone be heard and fear not being penalized for that."

The 2015 TELL survey, which is administered by the Colorado Department of Education to teachers and school leadership to gauge teaching conditions within their school, revealed some teachers did not appreciate the treatment by administrators.

"In that survey there were 15 areas where our teachers reported negative climate and culture," Zimet told The Aspen Times, noting teacher turnover and pay were some of the highlights.

At the candidate forum, she stayed on that message: "We don't want to sweep under the rug these negative findings. We think an effective board should embrace positive and negative data and confront it and deal with it."

Nickell also contended that while the Board of Education is currently addressing teacher pay, "It's very inconsistent that we find a salary problem from 2014, and it takes us four years to solve it."

According to the Colorado Department of Education, the average salary for full-time teachers at the Aspen School District was $58,287 in 2016-17. That was fifth in the state. Boulder Valley RE2 paid its teachers the highest average annual salary — $72,951.

Teacher turnover at the Aspen School District was 17.48 percent, with 25 of its 143 teachers leaving between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years, according to the Colorado Department of Education. Also between those years, the school district saw an overall turnover rate of 17.86 percent, based on education department data.

Romero, at the candidate forum, said it needs to be addressed.

"There clearly is some systemic turnover — and some of it is natural progression, retirement, life changes — but some of it tells us that there are some issues in the context of culture and alignment, and the common expression I hear on the street is, 'I don't feel like the district has my back.' … We heard that in the community. It might be a perception, but it's out there as a perception in the community and it is an issue."

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

Aspen voters will weigh in tobacco tax, land purchase

A new tobacco tax and a land purchase are in the hands of Aspen voters this November election.

Ballot Issue 2B will ask voters to approve taxes on both cigarettes and tobacco products, with the tax of cigarettes starting at $3 and rising 10 cents a year until it reaches $4. The same ballot question asks voters to OK a 40 percent hike on all other tobacco products along with e-cigarettes.

Projections by the city put annual tobacco tax revenue at $325,000, which would be dedicated to the city’s general fund. That revenue would be used for health and human services and education campaigns to curb the use of tobacco and other harmful substances.

If approved, the tobacco taxes would take effect Jan. 1, the same day the city’s legislation raising the tobacco purchase price from 18 to 21 years old takes effect.

There were no written comments for or against the tax in the ballot notice sent to voters. Some critics of the tax have likened it to both a sin and regressive tax in the spirit of a nanny state, yet supporters say it will benefit the overall health of community.

Aspen voters also will be asked to decide a $3 million bond question, Ballot Issue 2C, for the pending purchase of some Woody Creek land to possibly store water.

The city has 63 acres of land on Raceway Drive under contract to buy for $2.65 million. Even if voters approve the bond question, the city could back out of the deal.

Purchasing the Woody Creek land means the city would need to transfer its two conditional water rights in upper Castle and Maroon creeks. The transfer of those rights, which account for 13,629 acre-feet of water, would need the water court’s approval.

The city is presenting the question to voters in response to public outcry over the potential that it could dam both Maroon and Castle creeks for water storage in the future.

Tobacco tax question — Ballot issue 2b

The following is the direct ballot language for the city’s proposed cigarette and tobacco taxes that will Aspen voters will decide upon in November.

SHALL CITY TAXES BE INCREASED BY UP TO $325,000 IN 2018 AND BY SUCH AMOUNTS AS MAY BE GENERATED ANNUALLY THEREAFTER BY THE IMPOSITION OF NEW TAXES AS FOLLOWS:

BEGINNING JANUARY 1, 2018, THERE SHALL BE A NEW TAX OF FIFTEEN CENTS PER CIGARETTE OR THREE DOLLARS PER PACK OF TWENTY CIGARETTES SOLD PROVIDED THAT SUCH TAX SHALL INCREASE BY AN EQUAL AMOUNT ANNUALLY THEREAFTER FOR TEN YEARS UNTIL THE TAX IS TWENTY CENTS PER CIGARETTE OR FOUR DOLLARS PER PACK OF TWENTY CIGARETTES;

BEGINNING JANUARY 1, 2018, THERE SHALL BE A NEW SALES TAX OF 40% ON THE SALES PRICE OF ALL OTHER TOBACCO PRODUCTS;

THE TERMS “CIGARETTES” AND “TOBACCO PRODUCTS” HAVE THE SAME MEANINGS AS IN SECTION 13.25.020 OF THE ASPEN MUNICIPAL CODE;

THE TAX REVENUES SHALL BE USED FOR THE SPECIFIC PURPOSES OF FINANCING HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, TOBACCO RELATED HEALTH ISSUES, AND ADDICTION AND SUBSTANCE ABUSE EDUCATION AND MITIGATION;

AND THAT THE CITY MAY COLLECT, RETAIN AND EXPEND ALL OF THE REVENUES OF SUCH TAXES AND THE EARNINGS THEREON, NOTWITHSTANDING THE LIMITATIONS OF ARTICLE X, SECTION 20 OF THE COLORADO CONSTITUTION OR ANY OTHER LAW?

WOODY CREEK LAND PURCHASE — Ballot Issue 2C

The following is the direct ballot language for the city’s proposed general obligation bonds to buy land in Woody creek for future water storage.

SHALL CITY OF ASPEN DEBT BE INCREASED BY UP TO $3,000,000, WITH A MAXIMUM TOTAL REPAYMENT COST OF $5,500,000, BY THE ISSUANCE OF GENERAL OBLIGATION BONDS OR OTHER EVIDENCE OF INDEBTEDNESS FOR THE PURPOSE OF PURCHASING PROPERTY LOCATED IN PITKIN COUNTY, COLORADO TO BE USED FOR THE STORAGE OF MUNICIPAL WATER SUPPLIES OR OTHER MUNICIPAL PURPOSES, WHICH DEBT SHALL BE PAYABLE FROM (1) WATER UTILITY FEES AND (2) TO THE EXTENT THE CITY COUNCIL DETERMINES THAT THE REVENUES PROJECTED TO BE AVAILABLE FROM SUCH WATER UTILITY FEES WILL

BE INSUFFICIENT TO PAY THE PRINCIPAL OF, PREMIUM, IF ANY, AND INTEREST ON SUCH DEBT AND TO OTHERWISE

COMPLY WITH THE COVENANTS OF THE ORDINANCE OR OTHER INSTRUMENTS GOVERNING SUCH DEBT IN ANY YEAR, FROM THE TAXES DESCRIBED BELOW; SHALL CITY TAXES BE INCREASED BY UP TO $225,000 ANNUALLY IN ANY YEAR BY THE LEVY OF AD VALOREM PROPERTY TAXES, WITHOUT LIMITATION AS TO RATE OR AMOUNT OR ANY OTHER CONDITION, TO PAY THE PRINCIPAL OF, PREMIUM, IF ANY, AND INTEREST ON SUCH DEBT AND TO OTHERWISE COMPLY WITH THE COVENANTS OF THE ORDINANCE OR OTHER INSTRUMENTS GOVERNING SUCH DEBT IF AND TO THE EXTENT THE CITY COUNCIL DETERMINES THAT THE REVENUES PROJECTED TO BE AVAILABLE FROM SUCH WATER UTILITY FEES WILL NOT BE SUFFICIENT THEREFORE; SHALL SUCH DEBT MATURE, BE SUBJECT TO REDEMPTION, WITH OR WITHOUT PREMIUM, AND BE ISSUED, DATED AND SOLD AT SUCH TIME OR TIMES, AT SUCH PRICES (AT, ABOVE OR BELOW PAR) AND IN SUCH MANNER AND WITH SUCH TERMS, NOT INCONSISTENT HEREWITH, AS THE CITY COUNCIL MAY DETERMINE; AND SHALL THE CITY BE AUTHORIZED TO COLLECT, RETAIN AND EXPEND ALL OF THE REVENUES OF SUCH TAXES, THE PROCEEDS OF SUCH BONDS AND THE EARNINGS THEREON, NOTWITHSTANDING THE LIMITATIONS OF ARTICLE X, SECTION 20 OF THE COLORADO CONSTITUTION OR ANY OTHER LAW?

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