Which tax should beneﬁt Aspen schools?
ASPEN – The Aspen Education Foundation is weighing the merits of two different means of bringing additional funds into the Aspen School District – a voter-approved sales tax or a temporary diversion of real estate transfer tax funds collected by the city of Aspen.
“We continue to talk to stakeholders in the community, and there is still overwhelming support for education,” foundation board President Mark Leydecker said at Monday’s Aspen Board of Education meeting. “But we are finding some disagreement on how to fund the current shortfall.”
Representatives of the Aspen Education Foundation previously told the school board that the nonprofit organization – which serves as the public schools’ fundraising arm – was considering putting a sales tax question on the November ballot. The hope was to inject an additional $2.5 million into school coffers annually in an effort to alleviate the ongoing school budget crisis.
On Monday, Leydecker said the Aspen Education Foundation might be changing direction.
“There is still a large percentage of people who are in support of some type of sales tax,” he said, adding that any sales tax initiative would be limited to the city of Aspen and not Pitkin County. “But we’ve also been asked to consider whether there is any appetite in the community for a short-term diversion of (real estate transfer tax) funds to the schools.”
The real estate transfer tax is a 1.5 percent tax on the purchase of all property within Aspen city limits. The money received is currently divided between two funds: one-third for the Wheeler Opera House and two-thirds for the housing program. The idea, according to Leydecker, would be to divert some of these funds to the public schools for a limited period of time.
“We’ve received a lot of feedback that those budgets are large enough and that the city can cut back to help the schools for a short period,” he said.
To go this route, AEF would need the Aspen City Council’s blessing. If AEF was unable to get their approval, Leydecker said a petition might be needed to bring the matter before voters.
“I don’t think there is a strong desire by our elected officials to divert RETT funds right now,” he explained, noting that Mayor Mick Ireland did express general support for the sales tax idea, however. “But what we’ve heard is a growing sentiment that we’re taxed enough, and that there’s a lot of money coming through the RETT, so …”
According to Leydecker, the next step in the process will likely be to poll voters. The hope would be to gauge their support of a sales tax increase and/or a short-term diversion of RETT funds.
While the board of education did not officially weigh in on the two ideas being presented, as it cannot put forth such funding initiatives under state law, school board members did encourage AEF to be diligent in its research, polling and campaign effort.
“This is a positive and forward-looking effort,” said board member Bob Glah. “But are we putting the cart before the horse by asking voters if they want to fund education, without telling them what the funding mechanism is or how the money will be collected and doled out?”
They also raised concern about the initiatives only affecting those within Aspen city limits, though the school district’s boundaries include students from Snowmass Village, Woody Creek and other areas of Pitkin County.
Leydecker acknowledged that “inequity,” but said, “We’re Aspen. If we have to carry the water for Snowmass and Woody Creek for a few years we can, because it’s in the best interest of the kids in the Aspen school system.”
If a tax or funding measure is to be placed on the November ballot, the language for it would need to be approved by August. Leydecker said he would report back to the school board following the next AEF board meeting.
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