Roger Marolt: Roger This | AspenTimes.com
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Roger Marolt: Roger This

Roger Marolt
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Not understanding one single thing about the big brawl taking place at the Aspen Music Festival and School Corporation (AMFS) and not knowing any of the players, I’ve thought it best to keep my nose out of it.

But, try as I might to ignore the brouhaha, what I have realized in paying what little attention I have to the story is that the MFs at AMFS have a boatload of money. Rumors travel fast during offseason, when distractions are few and there is less news to satisfy the cravings of locals not necessarily hungry for hard-core reporting but wanting something to chew on nonetheless, and the most rapidly spreading rumor on our lonely streets right now is that both CEO Fletcher and Director Zinman are making salaries in the very high six digits. Those are prizes worth fighting for, and about all I can say to the contestants is, “Go for it!”

However, if they are paying these two guys somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.5 million a year, I’ll bet that they must have an annual operating budget somewhere north of $15 million. That’s a pile of loot!

And, my hat is off to them. If they can shake the money tree like that in this economic environment, the people at the top are probably worth what they are making. Even if they aren’t, it is AMFS’s money to spend how they wish and they have only their large donors to answer to. I don’t care about any of that.

What I am concerned about that I never really thought about before but that has come to light in this public fight is a potential benefit for our children. No, I am sorry to say that I have not identified any meaningful life lessons to be taught from what appears to be a fairly silly public spat. What I have gleaned only concerns money … and how to get more of it for our financially struggling public school system.

As you probably know, the Aspen School District is fighting the battle of the bulging deficit. We are looking at substantial budget cuts this year and probably even larger slashes the next with little relief on the horizon after that. We need to find ways to raise revenues or risk losing a lot of the great things our schools have to offer our kids.

I’ll get right to the point. Did you know that AMFS uses our school buildings during the summer? How much do you think they pay in rent? Well, I can’t tell you that. I scoured the annual budget looking for the amount of rent AMFS paid to the Aspen School District last year and I couldn’t find it anywhere in the numbers. Yes, I could have asked somebody at the district finance office, but as they say in the accounting world, “If you have to ask where it is in the financial statements, it’s too small to worry about.” I think it is safe to say that it’s peanuts.

A month ago I wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow over this. I would have figured it was our school district putting empty buildings to use in the summertime to help out a valued fellow local nonprofit organization. Today I say, “fiddlesticks!”

If AMFS can afford near-million dollar a year salaries for heavyweight prize fighting prima donnas like Messers Fletcher and Zinman, they can certainly afford to pay full-market rent for the use of our school property. At the very least, their students should pay as much to use the property as ours do. I can see no good reason why our struggling school district should continue to subsidize through dirt cheap rent an organization whose donor list could easily be mistaken for the Forbes 400.

In paying more attention to AMFS than usual, I remembered that they are planning a major renovation of their Castle Creek campus. In late 2007 they received a pledge of $25 million to kick the project off. Back in 1996, they raised $37 million for an endowment and facilities improvements. Great for them! And good for us, too. It shows that they believe in the value of Aspen real estate and have the ability to raise big bucks for putting it to use. If they can spend money like this for their own buildings, they can fork over a few to use ours, too.

Please don’t get me wrong. AMFS is an extremely valuable asset for this community. But, we shouldn’t sell ourselves short on that account. I believe Aspen is at least as valuable to AMFS. Say what you will, their money tree seems to thrive in our expensive soil and would probably die if they tried to transplant it anywhere else. And while many nonprofit organizations here and around the world are struggling to keep their missions going, AMFS is not one that I lay awake nights worrying about. They have always been able to reap a richer harvest than most. You can think of the Music Tent as a state-of-the-art greenhouse in that regard.

What we have learned from this very public fight at AMFS is that their organization is willing to pay the going rate for its key people and prime property, even when those rates are high. Why then should they object to paying the going rate for our school district’s real estate that they utilize for nearly a quarter of the calendar year?

Maybe whoever is in charge after the dust settles at AMFS can answer that question.


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