In a race to the finish line, the Aspen Community School announced on Tuesday that it has raised the required $4.9 million in local donations in order to match a state education grant, securing $9.1 million so far in an effort to overhaul the aging campus.
ACS had until today to raise 54 percent in matching funds in order to secure a $4.2 million Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) grant, a competitive program to fund school construction and renovation projects in Colorado.
The announcement was made by school administrators on the stage of the Wheeler Opera House, where its 127 students are rehearsing for a Sherlock Holmes play that will be performed Thursday and Friday.
“It’s been quite a ride,” said Skye Skinner, executive director of Compass, the nonprofit that oversees ACS. “This has been the most extraordinary journey.”
That journey began four years ago, when the school applied to the competitive BEST program in the hopes of funding construction to replace its 40-year-old campus facilities.
But they were denied three different times, presumably because of Aspen’s reputation of being a ritzy, wealthy community.
The school won its grant in June, but there was a crucial catch: It was obligated to cover an unattainable 81 percent of the $10 million request due to new state legislation passed in the spring that recalculated the applicant-match requirement.
In March, when the school applied for the grant — and before the legislation passed — its share was a more manageable 54 percent.
Then in August, the school won an appeal to the BEST board, dropping the match down to 54 percent and a more realistic fundraising goal just shy of $5 million.
Skinner said at the time that she felt the Aspen stereotype had faded among state education officials.
Skinner had written an appeal to the BEST board in June after their initial decision, asking them to waive the higher match, but was denied a hearing.
Community school officials then went to the Colorado State Board of Education, which heard the appeal and voted unanimously for the community school waiver. The BEST board voted 4-2 in August, at a hearing in Denver, for the waiver.
It marked the first time in BEST’s four-year history that the board reversed such a decision.
School principal Jim Gilchrist said on Tuesday it was Skinner’s determination and grit that made the BEST grant happen, and her “pitbull fundraising” allowed the school to raise millions of dollars in a relatively short amount of time.
In September, the Woody Creek charter school started its “I Believe” fundraising campaign and more recently launched an online effort dubbed “Bringing Home the BEST.”
The donations were slow going at first but as the May 1 deadline drew closer, the local community began bucking up.
In the last seven weeks, the school’s I Believe campus campaign saw an exponential growth in donations. Since the week of March 18, the campaign has brought in $3 million, or 63 percent of the matching funds. The donations came from over 600 individuals, including 74 “piggy bank” contributions from children totaling more than $800.
“They really have been our inspiration since day one,” Skinner said from the Wheeler stage.
Donors include everyone from school families to neighbors to community-minded philanthropists — 31 percent are current families, alumni, staff and board members of ACS, while 67 percent of the donors are extended community members. The remaining 2 percent represents corporations and foundations; the Walton Family Foundation, which was founded by Walmart billionaires Sam and Helen Walton, gave $1 million in March.
In early April the school received a $750,000 anonymous donation and Clark’s Market pledged to donate 1 percent of total sales for purchases made at the Aspen store all of last week.
Gilchrist said as the deadline approached, the community showed up in spades.
“There were so many checks coming in, I couldn’t keep track,” Gilchrist said after Tuesday’s announcement. “It was really miraculous. ... Over something like 650 donors for our tiny little school. It was mind boggling.”
The $9.1 million raised to date represents 78 percent of ACS’s overall campaign goal of $11.6 million to rebuild the school campus.
ACS now has $2.5 million remaining to raise in its campus campaign, and has given itself until September 2014 to reach the goal.
“Really, this party is just getting started,” Skinner said. “We have a lot of reason to believe that we’ll succeed.”
The school will begin building in phases while fundraising continues. After hiring a project manager and architect, the school will develop construction drawings and engineering. ACS will break ground on a new main building in the spring of 2014 while classes continue in the original building. If all goes as planned, in fall of 2015 classes will begin in the new school building and renovation of the original building will commence.
The new campus will include an additional 5,000 square feet of learning space; 25 percent more classroom space and a 50 percent increase in visual and performing arts areas, as well as other upgrades.
Construction plans include the renovation and repurposing of nearly all of the existing structures, including the original school; the existing gym that will be converted into a community hall and theater; and four employee housing units will be built.
Contrary to public perception, funds generated from last fall’s Aspen sales tax initiative and other public dollars dedicated to local schools cannot be used to finance capital improvements.
Ted Hughes, director of BEST, said many schools have the ability to go to the voters for school capital improvements, but there was no support for it here. If it wasn’t for Skinner, there would be no BEST grant, Hughes said, acknowledging that the Aspen stereotype was real among the nine-member board.
“It was Skye’s perseverance that changed the game,” he said.
Hughes noted that when the BEST program began five years ago, they assessed all school facilities in the state and determined that there was $18 billion needed in order to bring them up to par.
“There are a lot more ‘no’s’” coming from the board, he said. “We’re just scratching the surface.”
When asked how he felt about being selected from such a large pool of needy institutions, Gilchrist said, “We are so elated. It hasn’t totally sunken in yet.”