Winter Park Council explores ways to help with school funding
Winter Park, CO Colorado
WINTER PARK – Town council met on short notice here Thursday, Feb. 3, to discuss options for raising funds to keep Fraser and Grand Lake elementary schools open for the entire 2011-2012 school year.
More than a dozen community leaders attended the meeting to share ideas and express hope that the community schools can be saved.
“One thing I’ve learned is that this is so complicated,” said Gary DeFrange, president of Winter Park Resort, who has been leading a business-community effort the past few weeks to come up with alternate solutions to closing the schools.
An East Grand School District committee recommended closing the two schools to help cover a projected $1 million-plus funding shortfall.
Topping the list of ideas is to seek a 1-cent sales tax increase at the ballot in November.
East Grand School District superintendent Nancy Karas said the school board might consider spending money out of its reserves to keep the schools open until the vote, but added that the district can’t afford to float the two elementary schools for the entire school year.
Winter Park Town Council, in a public conference call with lawyer John Martin, tossed around ideas about how the town possibly could contribute to the effort.
Council members discussed contributing cash from the town’s own reserves to help the district through the initial crisis.
“Can’t we view it as a town investing in our community,” said council member Jimmy Lahrman. “Like community parks or roads …”
But the mere suggestion of giving the town’s tax dollars to the school district made the town’s lawyer uncomfortable. Martin questioned the legality: “Is there a taxpayer in the town that’s going to challenge it?” he asked
Fraser resident Clark Lipscomb suggested redirecting the $1.3 million “cash in lieu of” fund from developers, but Martin also called the legality of that into question.
Grand County Commissioner James Newberry said the county is planning to help in any way it can, including possibly contributing more Forest Service/PILT funding to the schools. Normally the county splits this special funding with the schools and its own departments.
It could be just prolonging the inevitable. If the ballot measure doesn’t pass, the schools could still close.
“But isn’t it better to prolong the inevitable than to not?” DeFrange asked.
Ron Nelson of the East Grand Education Foundation, a donor-advised fund of the Grand Foundation, said his foundation is prepared to accept both private and public donations to help the cause.
The fund can serve as a work-around to strict state laws that prohibit one taxing entity from contributing to another. The Town of Steamboat Springs has successfully contributed sales-tax-generated funding to its schools in this manner for many years.
But Winter Park resident Lori Myers reminded the group that unless citizens of Granby, Hot Sulphur and the west end of the county can be convinced that they have a dog in the fight, the sales tax initiative is unlikely to pass.
Right now, Granby residents are convinced that their schools will be better if Fraser and Grand Lake elementary schools close, she said.
To discuss these concerns, the group scheduled a meeting among all the towns, the county and the school board for Wednesday night, Feb. 9, in Granby.
Town officials divided
As the meeting progressed, it became clear that council wasn’t united in its desire to help the schools.
Council member Barbara Atwater said she doesn’t believe that it’s the town’s role to get involved in school finance, adding that if all the elementary students from the district can fit into one school building without overcrowding, “Maybe we have too many schools.”
Council member Vince Turner, who attended the meeting by phone, suggested that the town giving money to the schools would be “taxation without representation.”
Turner further chided council member Jimmy Lahrman for being too close to the issue. Lahrman, who has four children in the school district and serves on the District Accountability Committee, has spent the last few years helping the school district work on solutions for its financial troubles.
“You need to let the rest of us catch up with you,” Turner said.
Council member Katie Riemenschneider replied to Turner that if he was in town, rather than in Mexico these past few months, he would better understand the sense of crisis that’s overwhelming everyone right now.
Even Town Manager Drew Nelson said he is uncomfortable with proffering any funding to the cause before the legal issues are resolved.
Karas and Newberry implored council to remember that anything the district does is just a band-aid.
The real fight needs to happen in the state Capitol, Karas said, where the state constitution needs to be changed to remove limits on school funding.
“We’ve got to fight Tabor, Gallagher and Amendment 23,” she said.
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After their soccer game Saturday, the Grand County Wildcats suited up for a very different type of game.