The rationale behind Aspen School District's Question 3A on the November ballot is not to erect new buildings or fix old ones, but to maintain the district's existing programming and class sizes as district expenses outpace state funding.
The rationale behind Aspen School District\ Credit: Aspen Times file

To understand why the Aspen School District is seeking another property tax increase, one has to go back to the Great Recession.

As the economy slowed and state revenue dwindled, Colorado legislators looked everywhere for expenses to cut. In 2010, they created the “negative factor,” a mathematical formula to reduce school spending and help balance the state budget.

Twice in recent years, school-funding advocates have challenged the negative factor in court, and twice they have lost — most recently Sept. 21 when the Colorado Supreme Court upheld the negative factor, saying it does not violate Amendment 23 of the state constitution.

Approved by Colorado voters in 2000, Amendment 23 directs legislators to increase public-education funding annually. Nonetheless, the court found the negative factor to be a legal budget-stabilization tool.

The near-term effect of that decision has been to validate the “new normal” of state school funding, whereby the Legislature moderates total per-pupil funding using a fixed percentage and school districts attempt to take up that budgetary slack through local tax initiatives.

“The only thing we can do is to take care of our little corner of the world, and maybe we create a model for what other districts can do,” said Sandra Peirce, president of the Aspen School District Board of Education.

Just how negative is the factor?

In 2014-15, the Aspen School District anticipated $17.48 million from the state but received only $15.22 million, so the negative factor had a $2.26 million impact on Aspen’s budget. Since 2010-11, according to the Colorado School Finance Project, the cumulative effect of the negative factor on Aspen district finances has been more than $9.5 million. It’s a significant hit for a small district with roughly 1,700 students.

In the much larger Roaring Fork School District, which runs 12 schools with 5,600 students in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, the cumulative impact of the negative factor has been $25.6 million. In 2014-15 alone, Roaring Fork lost $6.3 million.

Between 2009 and 2014, according to the Colorado School Finance Project, 59 Colorado districts have passed mill-levy overrides to alleviate their funding problems. One hundred and nineteen districts have not done so.

State Sen. Mike Johnston described the situation this way to The Denver Post: “Colorado never really recovered after the recession. The needs have continued to increase across Colorado, and our funding hasn’t matched that,” said Johnston, the main architect of Amendment 66, which failed in 2013 to fix Colorado’s school-funding problems. “In the absence of us coming up with a solution, what will happen is we’ll have 178 little district solutions. Local districts that have the capacity to pay … will. And districts that don’t have the capacity to pay won’t have a resolution.”

The Aspen solution

Aspen asked its voters in 2010 for a property tax increase to help fill the gap left by the state, and the reason for Question 3A on the Nov. 3 ballot is similar: a funding gap of roughly $2.3 million in school year 2015-16. The proposed tax increase, or mill-levy override, would allow the district to collect enough to pay for as much as 25 percent of its total program. This increase would deliver an additional $991,000, so it’s not enough to fill the $2.3 million hole.

“It’s only $3 per $100,000 of residential value, but that adds almost $1 million to our budget,” Peirce said. “However, even if the mill-levy override passes, the school board is still going to have to begin looking at budget trims in May 2016.”

Another important piece of the district’s funding puzzle is a 0.3 percent sales tax collected in Aspen. Since its inception in 2011, that tax has generated between $1.4 million and $1.8 million for the district annually, but it expires in 2016. So, Aspen school officials expect they’ll be back on the ballot in November 2016 to request an extension of that tax.

They also are working with the town of Snowmass Village, where 20 percent of the district’s students live, to provide some sort of annual contribution. The district also counts on the Aspen Education Foundation for charitable donations of $400,000 to $700,000 annually.

A “yes” vote on 3A would allow the school district to collect additional property taxes of as much as 25 percent of its total program costs. A “no” vote would prohibit any additional collections but would leave the district’s existing mill levy in place.

“We’re not looking to fluff up anything,” Peirce said. “We’re just trying to maintain the core values that the community expects.”

Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on education coverage. The Times published this story on Oct. 5, 2015.