Wi-Fi won’t cost $40,000, but school bus still too pricey for candidate | AspenTimes.com

Wi-Fi won’t cost $40,000, but school bus still too pricey for candidate

Bob Ward
Aspen Journalism

Despite factual inaccuracies in his original argument, a candidate for the Aspen school board is still opposed to the Aspen School District’s purchase of a $164,000 “activity bus.”

Multiple times over the past month, school board candidate Lee Mulcahy has claimed incorrectly that the district was planning to spend $40,000 to equip a school bus with wireless Internet service. He has suggested the money would be better spent on teacher salaries.

School officials this week sought to clarify exactly what they are proposing to do and to spend. It does involve a new bus, and it does involve Wi-Fi, but the figures are altogether different from what Mulcahy claimed.

“We’re not mismanaging the voters’ money,” said John Bangley, assistant principal of Aspen High School. “We’re actually being very frugal with it.”

On average, Bangley said, the district purchases two new school buses per year at a cost of roughly $110,000 apiece in order to keep the entire fleet under 20 years of age and to comply with Colorado standards. Because the fleet is currently in good shape, district officials plan to purchase just one bus this year, but it’s a special “activity bus” for long hauls to athletic contests and far-flung field trips. Instead of spending $220,000 for two standard buses, the district plans to spend $164,000 on a nicer bus with comfortable seating, reading lights and power outlets so students can read, study and do homework.

The school board — including two members, Sandra Peirce and Sheila Wills, who are currently seeking re-election — has agreed with district administrators that the bus would be a plus for high school students, who can spend anywhere from two to seven hours on the road to events and games in distant corners of the state.

“Seventy-two percent of our kids play a sport,” Bangley said, “and nothing we do is close.”

Upon hearing Bangley’s explanation, however, Mulcahy was undaunted. He tweaked the numerical details of his criticism to focus on the $54,000 difference between a normal “route bus” and the proposed “activity bus,” but he still implied that school officials are spending lavishly in a time of fiscal austerity.

“So the administration wants to actually spend $54,000 on extras in a time of budget cuts from the state?” he wrote in an email.

Mulcahy became something of a local celebrity in 2010 when, as a ski instructor, he openly criticized Aspen Skiing Co.’s pay rates and labor practices. He lost his ski-teaching job but made some headway in changing Skico labor policies through complaints to the National Labor Relations Board. Since then, he has sought to leverage his notoriety and seek several public offices, including a position on the Pitkin County Senior Services Council and a seat in the state Senate. He has not succeeded thus far.

With regard to his current school board bid, Mulcahy has no children in school and no working experience in the K-12 education system but taught French at the University of Texas Arlington for two years and taught skiing for 15. He describes himself as a “product of public schools” and a firm believer in public education.

The Wi-Fi service on the new bus would cost far less than Mulcahy understood. Transportation Director Gary Vavra said the total cost of the bus includes nearly $1,900 to equip the vehicle with Wi-Fi. Monthly service payments for the wireless would be $110 apiece, he added.

Still, Mulcahy took issue with the overall cost of the bus.

“Citizens know I’ll take a hard look at ‘$164,000 buses cum luxurious private jets’ before asking hardworking citizens for another tax increase next year,” he wrote.

The Aspen district has two tax increases in the works. First, alongside the three school board seats up for grabs on the Nov. 3 ballot, the district is requesting a property tax hike that would result in a $991,000 revenue boost. If approved, the measure would add $3 per $100,000 of residential property value to homeowners’ tax bills.

Next year, district officials already have said they’ll be back on the ballot in November to seek renewal of a city of Aspen sales tax that benefits the schools. They hope to see some kind of annual contribution from the town of Snowmass Village, as well.

These various fundraising measures are designed to counteract what is known as the “negative factor,” a budgetary tool that lawmakers have used to slow the rise of state spending on public schools.

Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on education coverage. For more, go to http://aspen journalism.org.