Joe Waneka sees where the new, clean pavement meets the old and crumbling. He shakes his head at the mulch-surrounded fire hydrant landlocked by sidewalk. 

As for the rooftop HVAC unit that you barely notice buzzing, he hears ever-so-subtle signs that it’s not functioning at 100%. The excitement in his eyes is more than noticeable when he’s prompted about his wishlist for the Aspen School District campus.

Pending a Board of Education vote expected on May 15 — and an ensuing nod of approval from voters in November — Waneka, ASD’s director of operations and facilities, would be entrusted with tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to address campus needs with another bond issuance as the funds from the last one in 2021 reach their end.

The likely number the district will seek is $175 million in 2024 dollars — nearly double the amount the district asked for in its 2020 ballot question — a figure rooted in the projected costs of 16 medium- to high-priority needs.

The majority of that sum — charted out at $100 million — is earmarked for further housing projects. The rest, however, would stay on campus, making some of the “premier” upgrades that Waneka sees but also addressing infrastructure projects that the administration believes would set the district up for the foreseeable future.







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The Aspen School District is expected to pursue a new bond issuance around $175 million to further address employee housing and campus infrastructure needs. 




“I would say that this next bond takes care of the district for the next 30 years,” outgoing Superintendent David Baugh said. “It will take care of the core mission of the district for the next 30 years. The bones of our buildings are solid. It will take care of ensuring that we have educational space that the community can be proud of to educate their children. It’s warm and safe and dry. It will take care of the housing side of staffing the schools and we’ll be able to open housing to a greater array of staff.

“I don’t see another ask of any substance in that 20- to 30-year timeframe.”

The 2021 bond

Baugh said that the district touched on everything the district wanted to accomplish with the last bond, but unforeseen rising costs meant it couldn’t go as deep as it wanted to on many projects. The most notable example is The Cottage, the district’s preschool, which was initially looped in with the bus barn for a $29 million target allocation in the 2020 bond proposal, according to a cost summary from July 2020.

The Cottage rebuild/relocation project got bumped from the bond project in the spring of 2022. It is labeled as one of two high priority projects in the newest bond needs.

The last bond asked the public for $95 million, which via interest after collection reached $114 million. As of January — the last public update of the current bond spending — nearly $98 million had been committed or spent with an additional $11 million assigned. The last $5.15 million is unassigned, but being held for housing or other needs.

In total, $54.11 million went/will go toward housing endeavors, with $44.36 going to new housing acquisitions. Baugh said that the district was able to acquire 52 housing units with that money.

The original adjusted total of $15 million on facility improvements and maintenance ballooned to $37.87 million as costs increased and the colloquial peak under the hood showed more and more work to do. For example, this district has continually been addressing crumbling sewage pipes at the high school discovered just last summer that, at its worst, was emanating unpleasant smells in the school’s science department.

The district also spent $1.99 million on electric buses and charging capabilities and $2.21 in other sustainability efforts. The cost summary draft charted out $2 million for “path to net-zero emissions.” The project list for the 2024 bond question does not include any “green” projects after a solar project proved unfeasible.

“We did a lot of work to move the district toward net-zero, but we were never able to quite make the finances work on a solar project,” Baugh said.

The projects that did and didn’t get done set the stage for what is left to do with another bond.

Housing a priority

Housing remains the No. 1 priority for the school district, and it’ll continue asking for taxpayer assistance to achieve it. For the projected spending on a future bond question, the district is looking at asking for $100 million to acquire around 100 more units, estimating the cost of acquisition per unit to be around $1 million.

Far and away, this is the highest allocation of potential funds, $65 million above a new early childhood education center.

With slightly over 100 units currently, if the district gets close to its approximation of 100 more units with another bond issuance, it will be able to house 66% to 70% of its staff.

A recent development of the district, in the form of a staff housing survey by Assistant Housing Director Sam Rose, shows that this may be all the district needs to acquire to reach a satisfactory inventory.

Previously, the district had aimed to be able to provide housing for 100% of its employees, citing the high cost of living and increasingly tight market. But Rose’s survey showed that not only does a portion of the district’s staff not want it, they don’t need it.

In the survey, around 80 employees stated that they owned their housing, around 27% of the district’s total employee group. Of the 104 survey respondents that are currently not in district-owned housing, around 70 said they would prefer to stay out of employer-owned accommodations, while another 21.2% said they were unsure.

Further, 48.1% of that same pool of respondents said they would not want to live in ASD housing, even if it had enough inventory for every employee. Another 31.7% said maybe. Only 20.2% said they would be interested in living in ASD housing under those conditions.

With that in mind, Rose recommended that the district aim its housing ambitions a little lower, to which it has been receptive. It’s now eyeing that two-thirds, three-quarters capacity range.

“The challenge with housing, to me, is we’ve picked all the low-hanging fruit,” Waneka said. “So now you’ve got to reach a little higher and that cost tab and everything keeps going up. It’s going to be a little harder to find more of that low-hanging fruit but I’m optimistic that things can still be procured.”







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The modular buildings that make up The Cottage, the Aspen School District’s preschool, are a high priority to be replaced in a possible new bond project. The district is estimating $20 million to $40 million for a new early childhood education center. 




The Cottage

The district’s preschool was the odd-man-out in the rising costs situation. Perhaps appropriately — as the story goes, the modular building unit it is in was kept on campus following a different project, only for managers to realize that they could no longer be moved down Maroon Creek Road. Construction of bridges over the road meant they couldn’t be removed, Waneka said he was told (this story is unverified).

If true, another capital project complication prolonged The Cottage’s lifespan yet again. ASD said initial funds intended for a relocation or rebuild of the preschool were needed for other projects in May 2022. A facility that was intended to receive around $20 million in attention saw around $390,000, according to the January bond update.

The exterior paint was redone, the heating and cooling system was upgraded and the flooring was redone. One classroom that previously had just a curtain dividing the classroom from the hallway got a doorway.

“This building wasn’t meant to be a child care center,” Cottage Director Leslie Bixel said. “It was kind of piecemeal together to make it work, and it works. We’re cozy here, we just need more space to grow and expand.”

The programming also has outgrown the facility. Bixel said two of the preschool’s five classrooms already are located inside the elementary school.

For the project needs of the presumptive November ballot question, housing and a new early childhood education center are the only two items listed as high priority. The project is earmarking $30 million for a new facility, with a note on the spreadsheet that costs could vary from $20 million to $40 million. Waneka said he sees a potential path to keeping the cost under $30 million.

Part of the cost is dependent on the location. The Cottage is currently located next to the high school parking lot, somewhat removed from the elementary school scene and the bus lineup for pick up and drop off — and adding some extra steps for Bixel when she needs to head from one set of classrooms to another.

Waneka said the district may opt to keep the preschool where it is or move it to what is currently a sledding hill between the elementary school and middle schools. He said that new construction is ultimately more efficient for the changes that the district wants to make.

Bixel said some of the items on her wishlist for a new facility would be increased space for infant care and teacher work space and an indoor play space for the harsher winter months.

“It’s right up there with additional housing,” Baugh said. “We’ve got kids in 40-year-old trailers. It’s adequate, it’s not great. It’s safe, it’s clean, it’s colorful but it’s not an ideal scenario.”

The bus barn

The district bus garage also was in need of some attention on the last bond project, but fell victim to the crunch brought on by rising costs.

As late as November 2021, the bus barn and buses were slated for $1.9 million in improvements. By May 2023, bus barn improvements were itemized at $200,000, and by January 2024 $250,000 had been committed on bus barn improvements with another $200,000 assigned — not including charging and electric buses, which ran up to $1.99 million before state rebates were applied.

Waneka said the major need is a full raising of the roof in at least some parts to be able to effectively service newer, taller buses — including two electric buses received from the state last year. The current setup requires workers to roll under vehicles in carts to work on them.

Notes on the spreadsheet point out the project could be a renovation or replacement, looking to create lifts in at least three bays. It also notes landscaping, fencing and the potential for a second-story utilization.

The bus barn is estimated to cost $8 million. It’s the fourth-highest item on the needs spreadsheet, third-highest in on-campus priorities.

“They’ve got to be able to get their lifts up for the new buses,” Waneka said. “Right now they’re on scooters trying to crawl.”







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The Aspen School District Theater is estimated to have $6 million in work done on the “front of the house” if a new bond is issued.




District Theatre

Upgrades to the Aspen District Theatre also fell by the wayside to a certain extent from the 2021 issuance. The cost summary showed $6.62 million in possible allocation for that bond, but January’s update showed that less than one-third of that, $2.17 million, came to fruition.

Waneka said the last bond took care of a lot of behind-the-curtain needs, including work on the choir classroom and rigging equipment.

A new bond would focus on the “front of the house,” everything in front of the curtain draw. This includes upgrades to Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility — there’s currently a limited availability for patrons who can’t use stairs, with as few as two spots for wheelchairs. It also includes an overhaul to general seating, though Waneka said he doesn’t believe there needs to be an adjustment to capacity.

He also believed that some of the $6 million price tag put on the estimated cost could be quelled by community partnerships.

“We’re going to make this a priority,” Waneka said.  

Other expenses

Housing, the early childhood education center, bus barn and district theater amount to $149 million of the $175 million estimated cost, leaving another $26 million for other on-campus endeavors.

The highest anticipated bill remaining is $15 million on campus-wide air conditioning, though grant money could help alleviate that.

Roofing projects on both the elementary and middle school are slotted at $2 million each. Both existing roofs are nearing their ends of life in the next five years.







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Aspen High School girls soccer faces Roaring Fork on the Aspen turf last week. Under a possible new bond project, the playing surface will be replaced before it reaches its expected end of life in 2029.




The Aspen Turf sports field and track is set to be the recipient of nearly $3 million — $1.4 million to deliver hydronic heating to aid in snow

removal and $1.25 million to replace the turf. The current surface was installed in 2019 and according to the cost estimate notes will be “needed by 2029 if not sooner.” Waneka noted that the school district is infilling the field with woodgrains in the meantime to create more bounce and increase longevity.

Deferred maintenance — which added up to $37.87 million in the last bond and $40.70 total when including work done on The Cottage and bus barn — is estimated at $1 million in the next bond. This includes miscellaneous work like restroom upgrades, classroom cabinets, furniture, parking lot cracks and sealcoating.

Waneka noted that a lot of the bathrooms on campus are original, and at some point received epoxy floors that collect materials “and it just doesn’t smell good.” Some of the bathrooms were worked on during the previous bond.

Costs estimated to come in under $1 million are:

• Stand-by electrical generators + potential build out: $800,000.

• Elevator refurbishments: $425,000 each at the elementary and middle schools, $800,000 at the high school.

• High school science wing rooftop HVAC unit replacement: $650,000.

• Replacement of brick retaining wall at high school woodshop courtyard: $250,000.

A project listed on the needs document is an athletics fieldhouse, but the consensus opinion between both the administration and the Board of Education is that more conversation is needed before considering it. The price tag is estimated to be between $30 million and $50 million, depending on location and potential community partnerships. The $40 million average is not included in the $175 million figure.







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Bond dollars have been used for everything from a landscaping facelift to purchasing new electric buses under 2021’s bond issue which provided $95 million for the Aspen School District. 




Cost to taxpayers

At the expected $175 million price tag, district administration expects an annual property tax increase of $131 per $1 million of actual home value.

The district also is considering a funding strategy called “tranches,” which allows the district to take its issuance in stages and reduce immediate impact to tax bills: the lower the amount issued, the lower the amount a homeowner will pay.

From the district perspective, another advantage of utilizing tranches is spreading out the allocation to best navigate laws around spending deadlines. The state requires school districts to spend 85% of its issuance within three years and all of it within five.

If, in a hypothetical example, the district broke up a $150 million issuance into three tranches, it could receive three issuances of $50 million, one in 2025, one in 2027 and one in 2029, the district would have until 2030, 2032 and 2034 to respectively spend each issuance.

With the district’s major priority being housing, spreading out the allocation could be advantageous: the market is limited at any given time, which would leave the district at risk of hanging onto money it can’t spend.

Tranches also allow the district to stop collecting if it feels it’s satisfied its needs — which may be unlikely, but the district’s housing target also dropped by around $100 million in cost when its priority shifted from 100% capacity to 66-70%.

“We like the idea of being able to do tranches because we don’t have all the projects right out of the gate,” ASD Assistant Superintendent of Business Mary Rodino said. “We could probably issue that first amount … and give us enough to pay attention if housing opportunities come up and also make good headway on that child care center.”

The Board of Education discussed placing a vote on the May 1 agenda to approve pursuing the bond ballot question — including the issuance amount. Board President Christa Gieszl told the Aspen Daily News that it wasn’t prepared for the vote by that meeting, but expects to have it now on May 15.

The general election in Pitkin County is scheduled for Nov. 5.

 

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