August 22, 2014

School board looks to renew city sales tax in 2016

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Aubree Dallas/The Aspen Times

ASPEN – Members of the Aspen School District board of education say they will likely need to ask city voters to renew a sales tax for education in the next two years, and that the community needs to start discussing the broader issue of long-term local funding for the district.

In November 2012, voters in the city of Aspen approved a 0.3 percent sales tax for education. The sales tax produced $1.4 million in revenue for the district in the 2013-2014 school year. The city sales tax sunsets in 2016.

“That’s sooner than we all think it is,” said Bob Glah, one of five school board members who met with Pitkin County commissioners last week.

Aspen and Steamboat Springs are the only two cities in Colorado with a dedicated local sales tax for education. School officials in 2012 initially went to the commissioners to get support for putting a county-wide sales tax to the voters. The county’s elected officials rebuffed the idea.

Aspen’s tax was pitched as an interim measure to offset cuts in state funding for education, but Sheila Kennedy Wills, the current president of the school board, said the district is being under-funded by the state “to the tune of $2 million to $2.7 million” a year and “it’s very clear now that those dollars will never come back.

“The state doesn’t have the money, so the state’s not giving us the money,” she added. “What we need to do is look for other sources of funding,” including renewing the city sales tax in 2016. “When that sunsets, I think we have to go to our voters, including the business community, and see what they think is tolerable.”

Both Wills and Glah acknowledged it was a “bold step” for city of Aspen voters to support the sales tax for education in 2012, and they were grateful voters did so.

“I think we’re being judicious with our dollars and at the same time striving to be one of the best school districts in the country,” Wills said.

The sales tax funds are managed by the nonprofit Aspen Public Education Fund, which provides grants to the school district for its needs, including teacher salaries.

Glah told the commissioners that the community needed to have “some fairly meaningful dialogue relatively soon” about sources for local funding.

“To the degree that we can help strengthen the local sources of our funding, the stronger we’ll be in the long run,” Glah said. “I don’t know what that looks like, but I think that it’s something that we have uniquely available to us here in Aspen.”

The school district has reached the upper limit of its mill levy, or taxing rate, on local property, although it could increase a tax for technology and transportation costs.

It’s possible the state legislature may raise the ceiling for the state’s school districts, but school board members said they’ve learned not to count on the state house.

Glah also said the school board recently learned that its starting salaries for new teachers are no longer the highest in the state, as they were 10 years ago.

He said teacher salaries in Colorado are now lower than many other states, and that makes it hard to attract new teachers, especially in Aspen.

“That’s a major issue for us,” Glah said.

In addition to paying employees and teachers, Glah said the school district will soon be facing significant maintenance and repair bills on the buildings on its Maroon Creek campus, including such “big ticket” items as new boilers.

Housing for teachers

The school board also told commissioners they are still in need of employee housing.

The district owns 43 units that it rents to its employees.

The collection of housing includes two single-family homes, and a number of one- to four-bedroom units: 10 in Woody Creek; eight in the Aspen Business Center; 15 in Snowmass Village; and five scattered in other developments.

The school district had only one employee housing unit turn over this year, Wills said. And that caused the district to scramble to find affordable housing for 19 new hires.

She then asked the county commissioners if they would consider teachers as “essential employees,” and give them priority in local housing lotteries.

That way, school employees could transition out of school district rental housing into ownership units after only a year or two, instead of waiting four years to become eligible to buy local housing, she said.

“If we could work out some kind of mechanism where they could go straight into that available housing, that is not owned by the district, that would be really helpful for us,” Wills said.

Commissioner Rachel Richards rebuffed the suggestion.

“I could never support a change in the priority system like that,” Richards said. “It’s just that there are too many groups.”

Richards said it had been debated many times in the Aspen community which group of employees should be given priority to the stock of local employee housing.

She said it’s been too hard to make value judgments on whether fire fighters, law enforcement officers, hospital employees, child care workers or ski patrollers, for example, are more deserving of a housing priority.

Richards suggested that the school district follow the city’s lead and sell its employee housing units to its long-term employees, with a clause that says they have to sell their unit to another employee within a year of moving out.

She said the school district could take the proceeds from the sale of the housing and build new units.

“Build it, sell it, and pull the money back out,” Richards said.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of local issues. The Daily News ran this story on Friday, Aug. 22, 2014.

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