Roger Marolt: Roger This
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
It isn’t fair that the Aspen public schools are so great. I can’t believe the high-quality, all-encompassing educational experience we have created for our children each and every time I visit the campus on Maroon Creek Road, which is quite often since I have a child in each of the three schools. I am not complaining that I spend a lot of time dropping off science fair projects, shuttling all assortments of gear for experiential education trips, and scheduling my social life around athletic and cultural events there. It is a blessing, and I know it.
If you will pardon me once again for having grown up here, I have witnessed from the perspective of a student and parent how a school system that was fabulous from my first remembrances of it in the ’70s grew to be even better today. Aspen has never been a community complacent about things dear to it.
Perhaps one of the more remarkable things about the sustaining of high educational standards in Aspen has been that it wasn’t done to prove that we are superior to other places, an instinct built into the DNA of resort towns constantly competing with each other in the hierarchy of tourist preferences. We didn’t create excellence in learning to attract visitors or bolster real estate values. It happened because we recognized incredible opportunities to do things for our children here that can’t be replicated anywhere else. As haughty as this sounds, it is fact.
They say good education comes at a price. This is true. In Aspen it has come at a relatively low cost. Our stunningly beautiful, functional, and well-utilized campus is situated in the middle of a state that is ranked 48th in the United States in per capita spending on K-12 education. This is not a recent development, either. We have dropped steadily in spending since 1991, when we were ranked 35th.
Interestingly, this decline in spending occurred during the region’s most prosperous times since the silver boom. But, I’m not here to cry about spilt milk. What I will bawl about is the milk that’s in the jug that is about to be toppled over.
In a nut shell, our district’s annual operating budget is about $15 million, which is a state-mandated $9,386.45 (adjusted slightly for regional cost factors, etc.) for each of our 1,616.3 students ( I pray the .3 is not one of your kids). Of that amount, almost 99 percent is provided through local property taxes, vehicle registrations, etc. So, the state of Colorado is kicking in a measly $158,000 from its education fund to help cover our operating costs.
To the surprise of no one, the state is in terrible fiscal shape. What you might not have known is that they are going to slash all of their funding to us. Big deal, right? It’s only a drop in the milk jug, anyway. Well, not so fast. Pay attention now because it gets a little sticky.
It turns out that the state provides a lot more funding to schools in poorer districts that can’t raise as much through their local property taxes to get up to the $9,386.45 per student equivalent. The cuts to those schools are much greater. The state is in such bad shape economically that it cannot subsidize all schools up to the current per student mandate. As a result, in order to maintain fairness they are considering lowering the cost per student allotment. This turns out to be really unfair to a place like Aspen.
I’ll explain: While the state can only take away the $158,000 that it’s giving us, it has legislative authority to reduce the amount that our district collects from property owners. They don’t take that money and use it for education elsewhere; they simply return it to the taxpayers who paid it. It is plainly one of the stupidest legislative rules ever – we return local money to local taxpayers that have elected to give it to their local schools because the state doesn’t have enough revenue for education. Is there an opening in Logic 101?
The good news for property owners is that your property taxes will be reduced. The bad news is that our schools get hammered. By current estimates for the next school year we could lose anywhere from $600,000 to $1.2 million in funding. If things don’t turn around rapidly, things get worse from there.
I hope that the long run of excellence in our schools is not over and that this is not the beginning of a great decline. I am not a prophet of doom, but it appears inevitable if we take no action. We cannot maintain excellence without money.
Fortunately, there is a loophole in the state’s stranglehold on our district’s finances. They cannot take away money that is given to the schools by gift. The notion of donating money to a public education institution is novel, but its time may have come.
If there was ever a time to actively support your school system financially, that time is now. Aspen Education Foundation (AEF) is a charitable organization whose mission it is to allow us to do this. If you will remember, their last year’s version of May Madness was the revamped local fundraising event that started them off on a new mission to gain widespread community participation in privately funding the things that we feel are most important to us in our schools. I am proud to finally say that “They” are “Us”. This is the best chance I see for “Us” to preserve what has been created in our schools since the Red and Yellow Brick buildings were constructed downtown so many decades ago. I urge you to support AEF at “our” annual event and throughout the year.
It’s all about tradition. It begins in earnest right now.
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For the past five-plus years I have sat in a big chair in a small office on Hyman Avenue watching life in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley play out in front of me.