September 4, 2015

Aspen School District launches first of two pleas to local voters

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Ever-growing costs and a lack of state support for public schools have led the Aspen School District to plan multiple appeals to local voters.

Christina Capasso/Aspen Journalism

Ever-growing costs and a lack of state support for public schools have led the Aspen School District to plan multiple appeals to local voters.

The Aspen School District will seek to boost its mill levy with an appeal to voters in the Nov. 3 election.

However, because that potential increase won’t answer all of its needs, the district expects to come back to voters again in November 2016 to renew a separate revenue stream.

In a special meeting on Sept. 2, the board of education approved language for a ballot measure to ask property owners for an additional $3 per $100,000 of assessed value. If approved, the measure would raise an estimated $991,000 annually.

The last time the district raised its mill levy was 2010. Since then, the district’s overall program has grown, and the state allows the district to adjust its property tax revenue accordingly — subject to voter approval.

“Colorado is a dismal 42nd in the nation for school funding,” said board President Sandra Peirce this week. ”Every year a portion of our state funding dollars owed to the school district under the School Finance Act have not been appropriated, and there is no reason to believe the state will ever meet that obligation in the future.”

Thus, as board member Sheila Wills stated recently, “We need to find a local solution we can rely on.”

To date, that solution has involved several strategies. The nonprofit Aspen Education Foundation has supported the school district since 1991, and the district also receives local tax dollars through both property taxes and sales taxes. The November mill levy override is essentially an effort to maximize potential property tax revenue as allowed beneath state-imposed caps.

Even if voters approve the November override — and history has shown that Aspenites usually support their schools — it won’t make up for the ongoing shortfall in state funding.

“According to five-year budget projections, our district will require between $2.3 and $2.9 million during that period to continue the high-quality education our community values,” Peirce said.

If the override is approved and performs as expected with about $991,000 for the district, the district will still need another $1.3 million to $1.9 million. That’s where the sales taxes come in.

In 2011, city of Aspen voters approved a 0.3 percent sales tax to support the schools, and that tax has delivered anywhere from $1.4 million to $1.8 million to the district over the past two academic years. Peirce said the tax has been “tremendously helpful” for the district, but is set to expire in 2016.

So, long story short, the district plans to appeal to voters both in the 2015 election (with a property tax increase) and in the 2016 election (for a renewal of the sales tax). District officials hope the 2016 proposal will include both the Aspen sales tax and some kind of contribution from Snowmass Village, since many of the district’s 1,700 students also come from that municipality.

Snowmass Village is currently weighing how it might help. Town Manager Clint Kinney said Wednesday that the town’s sales tax rate is already high, so officials are exploring various options to help the school district.

“The Town of Snowmass Village greatly appreciates the importance of education to the community and desires to be as supportive as possible of the District and its mission,” Kinney wrote in a recent letter to Aspen Schools Superintendent John Maloy.

Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on education coverage. The Times published this story on Sept. 3, 2015.

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