Students deserve new school | AspenTimes.com

Students deserve new school

Fred Peirce

After much consideration, the Aspen School District is proposing a $33 million bond issue (Question 3B) in the November election that would allow the school district to replace the 35-year-old middle school, replace the roof and add five additional classrooms to the elementary school and upgrade the district theater.This has been a well-thought-out and well-intentioned process. Here are the facts:The bond is not about increasing capacityEvery voter should know that the bond issue is not about increasing capacity in the Aspen schools. Rather, it is about providing (or recapturing) additional instructional program space in the areas of electives, mathematics, reading, foreign language and the arts. Each of the three schools on campus contains approximately 500 students. Research describes this as an ideal number for a school as it facilitates the offering of a rich instructional program that still allows for the personal attention through a low student/teacher ratio that is needed for a high-quality program. Educational programs have vastly changed since the elementary and middle schools were built. The need for additional rooms to accommodate smaller class sizes, and a richer educational program with greater opportunities and offerings, is key to today’s instructional environment. Additional instructional space is required at both schools to keep pace with the needs of our instructional program.Our three schools range from 430-520 students, which allows the rich offerings that a quality program includes, while maintaining the type of educational environment that is tailored to the needs of individual students. In 2003, the Aspen school board passed a resolution limiting class sizes to 16-18 students for kindergarten through second grade, 18-20 for grades three and four, and an average of no more than 22 students for grades five through 12. In order to accommodate these small class sizes, and additional space for programs such as mathematics, reading, foreign language and the arts, we need to restructure our physical buildings. We have frozen additional enrollment of out-of-district students, accepting only five new out-of-district students this fall, all of whom were siblings of currently enrolled students. In studying all enrollment trends over the past 12 years, and the pupil generation rates of new housing areas, we believe that our current capacities of approximately 500 students per building will serve our needs for the future. If our numbers exceed those limits, we have the ability to increase capacity by decreasing the out-of-district enrollment. But make no mistake, even if we decreased enrollment today by rolling back out-of-district students, we would still need the proposed additional space to provide the diversity of programs and small class sizes we as a district and community desire.Aspen Middle SchoolAspen Middle School was built in 1971. Critical infrastructure elements of the 35-year-old building such as the roof, the plumbing, the mechanical systems, heat and ventilation, and the electrical systems including lighting and technology support are all are in need of repair and/or replacement. These must be addressed in the near future to keep them operational. Further, the middle school was constructed to accommodate an open classroom concept that proved to be unsuccessful nationally. That required substantial internal modifications to the building since 1971 to accommodate more traditional classrooms, resulting in small, inefficient, poorly lit and ventilated classrooms. Finally, although not required by code at the time, the middle school has no sprinkler or alternative fire suppression system. Any remodel would require the installation of a sprinkler system, too. A broad-based committee of residents, parents, community members, school district staff and administration, and experts on school building assessments (the Assets Committee), carefully evaluated the current status of the middle school over several months before recommending that the above deficiencies be addressed as soon as possible.Upon making these findings and recommendations, the Assets Committee was charged with finding the best solution to address these deficiencies. In addition, it was charged with finding a way to improve the energy efficiency of the building. It determined that the costs to remodel the current structure to address the immediate infrastructure needs, and house students in portables for a year of construction within the existing building, would cost more than $14 million, resulting in a building with a renewed infrastructure but without addressing the internal issues of classroom lighting, ventilation and size. Committee members’ best guess is that the life of the refurbished structure would be, at best, another 15 years. Conversely, they determined that the cost to build a completely new middle school would be approximately $22.5 million, which would provide a 50-year structure with outside lighting to each classroom, better ventilation and circulation. It could also be built without impacting the existing building, avoiding the need to displace the students into portable classrooms for a year.Upon completion of the new building, the old building would be removed, creating a wonderful playground space and an enhanced campus for all students. The Assets Committee determined that remodeling the current structure would be a classic example of “throwing good money after bad.” They strongly endorsed the current proposal.Aspen Elementary SchoolSimilarly, the Assets Committee determined that the roof of Aspen Elementary School needs to be replaced immediately. The estimated cost to do so is $700,000. When the elementary school was initially constructed in 1991, one wing was built to accommodate an additional floor, with five additional classrooms. Currently, the elementary school houses four classrooms in rooms that were designed for additional programs, including a music room, an auxiliary gym and a room that also serves as a dressing room for the District Theatre.By installing the additional floor at the same time the roof is replaced, the elementary school will recapture program-specific rooms and realize the efficiencies of combining construction costs by removing the existing roof and adding the additional floor before installing the new roof. The incremental cost of adding this additional floor is minimized since it was anticipated when the structure was initially constructed. Again, the Assets Committee strongly endorsed this proposal. Approximately $2.6 million of the total $22 million bond is anticipated to add this additional floor.Finally, the Assets Committee looked at the District Theatre and associated facilities and recommended upgrades to the infrastructure of the interior of the theater, the entrance and lobby circulation, and rest room facilities. It suggested modest improvements. The total anticipated cost of these improvements is $1.7 million. This facility is used daily by students and faculty in the district as a classroom, for assemblies and for school productions. In addition, it produces revenues to the district in excess of $100,000 annually, making it a valuable asset of the district and worthy of upkeep.In short, the decision to ask the voters to approve the bond issue was painstakingly and carefully considered by the broad-based Assets Committee, the school administration and school board – all in open, public meetings.Collectively, we all agree that the proposed improvements are not only necessary but also the best solution to the district’s current capital needs and will provide the framework and foundation for the quality education our children deserve and our community demands. Fred Peirce is president of the Aspen School DistrictBoard of Education.