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Aspen school board candidates put to the test

Recently released data showing 41% of third-graders in Aspen Elementary School met or exceeded state reading standards have education board candidates expressing varying degrees of concern about the issue.

Unveiled at a Sept. 7 school board meeting and a topic of discussion at a candidate forum Thursday, the data are based on results from the state’s CMAS standardized tests and the STAR Reading Assessment from 2019.

Candidates Katy Frisch, John Galambos, Patsy Kurkulis, Jonathan Nickell, Jim Pomeroy and Bettina Slusar are running for the two open seats on the Aspen School District Board of Education. Sandra Peirce and Sheila Wills, both nearing the end of their second four-year terms, are stepping down because of term limits. Ballots were mailed out this week; the election is Nov. 5.

Thursday’s forum, broadcast by GrassRoots TV and moderated by David Krause and Curtis Wackerle, the respective editors of The Aspen Times and Aspen Daily News, capped a whirlwind week for the candidates, who also participated in the district-sponsored forum Tuesday and the Aspen Education Foundation’s debate Wednesday.

The candidates have tackled such issues as hiring a new superintendent, mental health at the schools, climate and culture at the district, teacher compensation and housing.

And how the district’s younger students are faring academically provoked a range of responses Thursday from the candidates.

“In my opinion, given that statistic, we need to do some SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) in the classroom right now, because those kids are in the classroom right now, and not have this be a long process and discussion but just get on the ground and figure it out,” Slusar said.

Yet Galambos, the father of three children who graduated from Aspen schools and now attend college, offered that standardized tests results tell an incomplete story.

“I do take a 12-year look at achievement,” he said. “My son had one bad year. He turned out to be a great kid and do really well overall, so we need to not say one bad test is terrible, or two bad tests. We do need to dive into why.”

One reason why, Nickell said, is the State Board of Education’s adoption of the common core state standards in 2010, which took effect in 2014, “has been especially acute at the elementary school” because curriculum has not been aligned with the tests.

“My personal opinion on what the problem is has a lot to do with curriculum alignment in terms of making sure that what we’re teaching is aligned with what the common core standards are,” he said, “because that’s what the test is testing on, and I think we’ve been hearing a lot about how that’s been a priority for the board for a long time, but we’re still not there yet.”

Slusar, however, countered other Colorado schools were dealt the same hand.

“That same situation applies to everybody,” Slusar said. “The standards were changed across the board, so something’s not happening, and now that we have that information, I think we need to figure out what that is.”

Like the other candidates, Frisch said there are varying reasons for the low performance.

“I suspect there are curriculum alignment issues,” she said. “It’s no one teacher. It’s no one kid. It’s no one bad day. Almost 60% of the kids can’t read at the right level. It’s just completely unacceptable.”

Standardized tests, Kurkulis said, aren’t necessarily a barometer for overall student achievement.

“I think one of the questions we’re not asking is: ‘What are our children learning?’ And I’m not sure that standardized testing always shows that.”

Kurkulis, however, added that previous school boards haven’t given the test results the scrutiny they demand, while Pomeroy said the board needs to deliver precise academic expectations.

“What we need to do is lay out clear goals, and this would be an obvious goal — to raise those test scores,” he said. “But then once it’s been given to the superintendent and staff, what has happened in the past is that they have simply said, ‘We did this.’ They haven’t shown statistics. They haven’t shown numbers.”

He added, “I want someone to show me a graph that says this is how we’ve done it and here’s the evidence that it’s happened. That hasn’t happened in the past, and that’s the board’s job. Set the goal, and then staff says how they have met that goal.”

Frisch and Slusar said the issue can’t fester.

“My reaction is this is a state-of-emergency-type thing,” Frisch said, adding that Aspen Elementary “is not an inner-city school. We do not have a tremendously large ESL population. This is horrific. This is something we need to fix right now.”

The community can use such academic resources as Room to Read to help address the deficiency, Galambos said.

“We can solve this problem,” he said. “We can tap some of the resources in the community. … It’s not just on the teachers. Let’s get the community in here to help the kids read a little better.”

Nickell said, “It’s not something that our kids all of the sudden got less smart. They’re the same kids. A lot of times it was just the same curriculum that’s being taught and it’s not matched to the standards that are there.”


Shortfall of $700k in transit funding presents a puzzle for Roaring Fork Valley officials

Facing a nearly more than $700,000 shortfall in transportation funding, upper Roaring Fork Valley elected officials decided to dip into their savings account to continue all funding commitments for a year.

That means the Elected Officials Transportation Committee will continue to contribute a $115,000 transit subsidy to the Winter X Games in 2020, as well as $100,000 next year to the We-Cycle bicycle sharing program, both of which were on the chopping block.

It also means the EOTC will work with the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority on a plan in which the regional bus operation begins solely paying for no-fee bus service in Aspen, Snowmass Village and Woody Creek beginning in 2021. That would save the EOTC more than $690,000 a year, according to cost estimates.

David Pesnichak, the EOTC transportation coordinator, said the main problem with the EOTC’s budget came in June, when a new state law governing the collection of sales tax went into effect. The law particularly impacted the half-cent use tax that funds the EOTC, he said. The loss amounts to about $711,000 a year.

To deal with the problem, elected officials decided Thursday to adopt a $4.4 million “transition” budget for 2020 that will rely on $181,000 from the EOTC’s $2.6 million savings account. The plan is to use 2020 to figure out how to deal with the decreased revenue.

Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman said even with the subtraction of the $181,000, the savings account remains healthy and buys the committee a year to figure out solutions. Cutting a successful program like We-Cycle or the subsidy to the Winter X Games, which provides an economic boost to the community, is not the way to go and wouldn’t save much money anyway, he said.

“It’s a healthy fund balance to get through the next year,” Newman said.

Pesnichak also pointed out that the communities of Aspen, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County are likely to receive more sales tax money under the new state law, as will RFTA through its half-cent sales tax funding source. That means those communities’ budgets could be hit up for the extra money.

Newman suggested comparing the loss of EOTC tax money to the gain RFTA will receive in sales tax money and possibly asking RFTA to chip in.

Dan Blankenship, RFTA’s CEO, said he also supported taking a year to figure out solutions.

“I believe (RFTA will) see a significant increase in sales tax,” Blankenship said. “I’m very optimistic that our board would approve (paying for the no-fee Aspen-area service).”

EOTC’s 2020 budget also includes $650,000 for the Snowmass Village Mall transit station, $1.9 million toward the Brush Creek Park and Ride lot and $564,000 for a variable message sign near the park and ride lot that will provide residents and visitors traffic and parking information.


Waffle House CEO testifies in ranch embezzlement case

After Waffle House CEO Joe Rogers Jr. told the caretakers of his ranch that he would be selling the property, they allegedly engaged in a scheme to embezzle more than $1 million to buy hundreds of acres of property.

That’s according to prosecutors in the trial against Charles “Zane” Farris and his wife, Charla Farris, who between 1992 and 2016 managed the Bear Wallow Ranch west of Glenwood Springs formerly owned by Rogers.

“I couldn’t believe that they’d do this,” Rogers, the first witness called by the prosecution, told the jury on the first day of the trial Thursday.

The alleged scheme came to light in 2016 after Rogers’ current wife, Fran Rogers, discovered suspicious checks written from the Bear Wallow Ranch account.

Joe Rogers told the jury that the Farris couple worked on the ranch when Waffle House Inc. purchased the property in 1989.

Around 1992, Zane became the ranch manager and a few years after that, Charla became the ranch’s bookkeeper, Rogers said.

Rogers purchased the ranch from the corporation in 1997 under Lands West Ventures Inc., and used it both personally and as a retreat center for Waffle House associates.

Many of the ways the Farrises allegedly embezzled money is difficult to distinguish from costs associated with ranch use.

For example, the Farrises were allowed to keep 25 head of cattle for their personal use, but Rogers said he discovered later that they were using ranch funds to care for the herd.

“They had built a pretty sizable cattle herd and the ranch was paying the expenses,” Rogers said.

Rogers announced he would be selling the property in 2012, and the Farrises bought their own property between 2012 and 2016.

In opening arguments, Zane Farris’ attorney Kathy Goudy said that every so-called questionable check was for a service the Farrises provided to the ranch.

“What you are not going to see is one single check written in which Bear Wallow did not receive a benefit,” Goudy said.

As an example, Goudy said Zane would sometimes shoe the ranch horses himself and bill Bear Wallow. That saved the ranch money, according to the defense.

“Their hard work was purchased by those checks,” Goudy said.

Rogers testified that by 2016, Zane Farris was paid around $50,000 and Charla’s salary was more than $35,000. Benefits included housing on the ranch, health insurance and participation in the Waffle House employee ownership program, which functions as a retirement account.

In 2012, Rogers told the Farrises he would be selling the ranch, Goudy said. Zane then “began thinking about his own future” and purchased land south of Silt.

Rogers found out in 2016 that the Farrises had moved, and he testified that “they had basically abandoned their jobs.”


Aspen football hosts No. 1 Rifle, Basalt heads to Delta in big WSL games

One score from last season stands out more than the rest, and it was Aspen High School football’s 20-19 win at Rifle. The Bears still won the Class 2A Western Slope League, while AHS finished fourth, but that loss kept Rifle from a perfect regular season in 2018.

It took a masterful defensive performance and maybe a bit of luck for the Skiers to pull the upset last fall, a script they hope to repeat when No. 1 Rifle visits the AHS turf on Friday night for a 7 p.m. league game.

“Our defense played really well last year. We gave up runs, but we didn’t break. We were able to dig our heels into the ground on our side of the 50 and were able to make plays,” AHS coach Travis Benson recalled of last year’s game in Rifle. “On the other side of the ball, we made plays literally when we had to. And those were the only plays we maybe made on the whole night, but when we had to make them our kids came through and made plays.”

Aspen (3-3, 1-1 WSL) probably needs to beat Rifle (6-0, 2-0) to realistically remain in the postseason race. The Skiers’ RPI is No. 18 this week, with only 16 teams making the 2A state tournament. Rifle is No. 4 in RPI and No. 1 in the coaches/media poll through CHSAANow.com. Last week the Bears hosted then-No. 2 Delta, winning 47-29 in a somewhat surprising score.

“Rifle is the top of the state. There is no question,” Benson said. “They play very disciplined football. It comes from coaches that are very experienced and they don’t make mistakes. You better play your best football when you play Rifle.”

Rifle graduated Tanner Vines from its 2018 squad. The star running back rushed for 2,230 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior and now plays for Colorado Mesa University, which is Benson’s alma mater. However, Rifle did return Levin Warfel, who already has 1,006 yards rushing and 14 scores on the ground. Senior quarterback Holden Stutsman has only thrown 27 passes this season, but does have seven TDs without an interception.

“They are a strong enough program that they can refill and replace, there is no question about it. But Tanner was also pretty special,” Benson said. “Rifle is just so well-coached that they’ve played in a lot of big games and they handle that pressure really well and they stay to what they do really well.”

Rifle has outscored its opponents 251-68 this season, including a 44-0 win over Coal Ridge in its WSL opener on Oct. 4. Aspen is coming off a 28-0 win at Moffat County, which it needed after losing 27-14 to Delta in its WSL opener. The AHS defense has really stood out in recent weeks, allowing only a combined 20 points over its past four games with two shutouts.

The Skiers will likely need another warrior-like performance Friday to have a shot against the Bears.

“It’s giving warrior effort and playing with a warrior attitude from the first snap to the last,” Benson said of playing good defense. “Right now I would say probably the better side of the ball and the best group is the D-line and our linebackers and their ability to stop the run.”

Basalt heads to Delta on Friday

The Basalt High School football team has been impressive en route to a 6-0 overall record and 2-0 start in WSL play. However, some could argue the Longhorns have barely been tested, something that will change Friday night when BHS travels to Delta.

“Super proud of the kids on where we are at right now, 6-0, where they control their destiny,” Basalt coach Carl Frerichs said. “We’ve, in all honesty, probably been more focused this week than we have in the last couple of weeks because we realize what is going on this Friday and who Delta is.”

Delta (5-1, 1-1) dropped from No. 2 to No. 5 in the media/coaches poll this week after their loss to Rifle a week ago. Basalt held steady at No. 7. In the all-important RPI, which determines postseason seeding, Basalt is No. 3, one spot ahead of Rifle, while Delta is No. 10.

The Longhorns are hardly seeking validation, but nonetheless a win over Delta could give them just that.

“If we win it’s definitely going to show all the other teams that we are legit,” Basalt senior center Daniel Sherry said. “It’s definitely going to be a hard game. We are definitely going to have to fight for it. But I’m excited to finally have to battle for it.”

Basalt is 2-0 in WSL play after wins over Moffat County (49-7) and Coal Ridge (34-0) the past two weeks. Last week’s game against the Titans was scoreless until late in the first half when two touchdowns in six seconds helped spark the Longhorns, who lacked intensity early in that contest.

The players see that as a bit of a wake-up call with the competition stepping up a notch this week.

“Most of our team knew they were 1-4 so when we came out at the start of the game we kind of played like they were 1-4 and we didn’t really bring it,” BHS senior receiver Jackson Rapaport said. “It took us a couple of quarters to wake up and get in the roll of things.”

Delta likely will come with plenty of energy as well after last week’s disappointing loss to Rifle. Should Basalt and Rifle both win Friday, it would set up a de facto WSL championship game next week when the Bears visit the Longhorns. Aspen and Delta, however, could still have plenty to say if they come away with wins.

“We are all ready for the game. We are all going to be hyped up before,” Sherry said of facing Delta. “I feel like last game just wasn’t what Basalt really looks like. But this week so far have been really good practices and I think we are pretty ready for Delta.”

Basalt beat Delta last season, winning 13-0. BHS also beat Delta in 2017, although the Panthers weren’t in the 2A WSL that season.

Note: Aspen and Basalt have joined forces to raise money for Grand Valley senior football player Cayden Schaeffer, who was seriously injured in an Oct. 4 game against Meeker. There will be buckets located at numerous businesses and other location in Basalt where people can drop in money.

Prior to the Nov. 1 football game between the teams in Aspen, each school’s cross country team will deliver the game ball via a relay from Basalt to the AHS turf. The schools hope to present the Schaeffer family with a check from the money raised.


Clubhouse Chronicles: AVSC Nordic skier Scott Lacy comes home to go beyond

Nordic skiing has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Maybe it was riding in the snuggy on my dad’s chest as he skied the Aspen trails nearly 30 years ago, or maybe it was the hot chocolate driven, after-school programming in elementary school. Somewhere along the line, I got hooked.

Then I entered my first Nordic race with Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club (AVSC) at 11 years old. The actual race is blurred with time, but I will never forget the scene: Steamboat Springs, 2-kilometer course, lining up with strangers from around the state, half tripping over my skis and poles, and winning. Maybe this win was also fueled by a fresh sugar rush from the ever-present hot chocolate in my early ski career. Nonetheless, it became the first race of many.

Racing with AVSC that first season led me to winning top Colorado Cup points, best in my age class within the Rocky Mountain Division, a feat I repeated the next six seasons. By eighth grade, I was skiing up in age class to attend Junior National Championships early. Sophomore year, I skied to my first top-five finish at Junior Nationals. Junior year brought my first qualification to race for the United States in Europe on the U18 international trip.

I attended this trip again during senior year, when I raced to a top 20 in the world for my age class. While racing for Dartmouth College, I earned NCAA All-American results, co-captained the ski team, developed a love for marathon ski racing and learned how to wax beyond Extra Blue kick.

Through it all, including the last five years coaching Nordic for the Jackson Hole Ski Club in Wyoming, I learned technique, training plans, ski waxing and all the necessary parts to high-level skiing. I am proud to have earned some great results and learned some valuable skills. But those are not the things that have kept me Nordic skiing. It is the pure love of the sport and community AVSC fostered throughout my entire junior ski career. Training is training, but training around Aspen on your favorite trails, with your best friends, with a coach who teaches you about the rocks, clouds, life and skiing, fuels a passion for being the best human I can possibly be. That is what AVSC Nordic is.

Now, 10 years after leaving AVSC, I’m returning to the place and people where it all started, with the goal of being top 10 in the nation’s overall rankings by the end of this season. I will be representing my home town racing on the national circuit and hope to represent our country in North America’s World Cup races this spring. I have big goals and a lot of hard work to do, but home is the place I know will push me farther than I have ever gone, to train harder, to focus more, to rest, to give back, to challenge myself, and to ski race!

Clubhouse Chronicles is a behind-the-scenes column written by the Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club that runs periodically in the Outdoors section.

Preps: Aspen boys tennis gets two players into state semifinals, BHS volleyball falls

Aspen tennis advances two players into state semifinals

The Aspen High School boys tennis team has two players into the Class 4A state semifinals after a strong showing on the first day of the state tournament on Thursday in Pueblo.

No. 2 singles player Alex Mosher is into the semis after winning 7-6, 6-1 over Niwot’s Sam Keronen in the first round, and rallying for a 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 win over Colorado Academy’s Caleb Aguirre in the second round. Mosher, a junior, will play Mullen’s George Henry Hanzel in Friday’s semifinal round.

At No. 3 singles, AHS junior Liam Sunkel also found his way into the semis. He beat Pueblo Centennial’s Zander Pacheco in the first round, 6-3, 6-0, and Pueblo Central’s Christian Guzman, 6-3, 6-1, in the quarterfinals. Sunkel will face Niwot’s Ben Bicknell in the semifinals on Friday.

The Skiers also had two other first-round wins on Thursday. The No. 1 doubles team of Lukee Tralins and Georges Ghali won 6-3, 7-5 in the first round, but lost 6-2, 6-7, 0-6 to a duo from Kent Denver in the second round. At No. 4 doubles, Aspen’s Dyer Hunting and Quinn Mckie won 6-0, 6-4 in the first round before losing 6-4, 7-5 in the quarterfinals. Both pairs have a chance to make the playback rounds depending on how the semifinals go.

Aspen’s No. 2 doubles team of Bryce Cordts-Pearce and Robert Holton, as well as the No. 3 doubles team of Ethan Godfrey and Liam Farrey, both lost in the first round. Also bowing out in the first round was junior Christian Kelly at No. 1 singles. He lost 6-0, 6-2 to Pueblo Central’s Dario Alcala.

With eight points, Aspen was tied with D’Evelyn for fifth place as a team. Cheyenne Mountain was the leader after Day 1 with 21 points, having advanced all seven positions into Friday’s semifinals.

Basalt volleyball falls in five to Roaring Fork on Thursday

The Basalt High School volleyball team played its second five-set match in three nights on Thursday, losing 3-2 at Roaring Fork. The teams split the first two sets, with BHS taking the third 25-22. The Rams rallied, winning the fourth set 25-17 before taking the decisive fifth set, 15-11.

Roaring Fork improved to 5-9 overall and 2-4 in Western Slope League play. The Rams next play Saturday at Moffat County.

Basalt, which beat Aspen 3-2 on Tuesday to snap a 15-game losing streak against their main rivals, dropped to 7-9 overall and 4-4 in WSL play. BHS had beaten Roaring Fork on Sept. 24 in a non-league game, 3-1. The Longhorns are off until hosting Rifle on Tuesday.

Basalt hosting regional cross country Friday at Crown Mountain Park

Basalt High School is hosting its regional cross country meet Friday at Crown Mountain Park in El Jebel.

The girls race is scheduled for 11 a.m., with the boys to follow at 11:45 a.m.


Keep Basalt vital: vote for 3A

Basalt residents should vote for ballot item 3A if they want to keep the current level of vitality including town services and cultural and recreational programs.

A “yes” vote does not increase the actual amount of property taxes. It fixes a 10-year failure to hold an election each time the rate was increased from the 2.562 mill low at the height of the Great Recession in 2009.

Without a “yes” vote the town would lose about $740,000 in property taxes each year from an annual operating budget of about $7 million. A 10 percent annual decrease in income would have to affect the level of services and amenities the town now provides.

A vote for 3A will keep Basalt moving forward.

Bernard Grauer


1A cracks down on vaping, tobacco use in Eagle County

On behalf of Mountain Family Health Centers, I urge Eagle County voters to vote “yes” on 1A in the fall election. Eagle County and the nation are learning about the dangerous health effects of vaping, which is when an “e‐cigarette” device injects high‐nicotine vapor and other toxins into a user’s lungs. Vaping has become the nicotine product of choice for teenagers: 39.3 percent of Eagle County high school students reported use of vaping products within the past 30 days, compared to 27.1 percent in 2015.

More than 5,000 Eagle County residents received care from Mountain Family Health Centers in the last 18 months, largely at our Edwards Integrated Health Center, Avon School-Based Health Center and new Basalt Integrated Health Center. We are concerned about the health problems vaping can cause for our patients and others.

Issue 1A will help Eagle County protect the most vulnerable residents and support public health. If passed, 1A approves a sales tax of $4 per cigarette pack and 40 percent on other nicotine and vaping products. Research shows that increasing the price of these dangerous products is one of the best tools for keeping cigarettes and vaping products out of the hands of our kids. Funds collected will support the county’s public health programs and education to prevent youth tobacco and nicotine use.

Please join us in working together to protect children and teenagers from nicotine and other harmful effects of vaping products.

Dr. Anneliese Heckert

Site medical director, Basalt Integrated Health Center


Confessions of a CUV Wannabe

Recently I traded in my old SUV (sport utility vehicle) on a newer car — a used Ford Edge — that I have come to understand is called a CUV (crossover utility vehicle). Now I am looking around at all the other cars running around Aspen realizing that maybe I have become what is called a CUV Wannabe. All I seem to see rolling beside me are Range Rovers, Porsches, Mercedes, Audis, and other high-dollar CUVs that cost like four to five times more than mine.

My car is way fun to drive and has plenty of power and is surely the first one I have owned that will go up I-70 to the tunnel at 10 mph over the speed limit with the air conditioning on and still have more left under your foot. On flat ground you can easily get to triple digits in about 20 seconds. I can hardly imagine the performance of one of those pricey jobs.

I was starting to get quite jealous until the other day when I saw parked on Main Street this super bright yellow ultimate looking CUV which I had never seen before — a Lamborghini Urus (base price 200 grand plus four grand shipping). A couple of minutes later I was laughing out loud saying to myself, “Now everybody else in this town is a CUV Wannabe!”.

Seriously, how much car do you need? Though it may seem so at times, Highway 82 is not the Autobahn. Getting from point A to point B around here swiftly and safely is not too hard. You don’t really need to spend like a quarter million bucks to give your ass a ride. Like my friend Big G. always tells me: It’s not the arrow — it’s the Indian.

Prentice Boyd Billings


Nickell for Aspen school board

I am endorsing Jonathan Nickell for the Aspen School District Board of Education.

As a lifelong educator, I am drawn to people who care about understanding the complexity of teaching and learning and who do their homework around what it takes to ensure quality education. Jonathan Nickell does all that and more.

I’ve served on the District Accountability Committee (DAC) with Jonathan for two years and during that time was impressed with his dedication to understanding the complexity of the Aspen School District — the myriad of data, budget allocations, student achievement, policy governance, state laws, staffing, etc. More importantly, doing so before making any recommendations. Jonathan does his homework and takes time to process it before jumping in with an opinion. When he speaks, I listen.

His previous school board experience, combined with his work on the DAC, have given him a deep understanding of the successes and challenges of the district and he sees the need to continue to improve support for the teachers of the district, not just with financial compensation, but also with ongoing professional learning opportunities that are a critical component of all highly effective schools.

And with Jonathan’s extensive business background and professional board experience, we can look at the way the board does business to ensure that it is not cumbersome, that the board thinks independently and keeps the end in mind, and that teachers and community voices are welcome.

Having spent 40-plus years in education and nearly 30 years in the Aspen School District, I believe Jonathan is an excellent candidate for the Aspen school board. He is deeply knowledgeable, innovative, and committed to excellence in education.

Jonathan has what it takes. Vote Nickell for school board.

Barb Pitchford