Aspen High School

Aspen High School students hanging out at the commons. A gift announced Monday is targeted at graduating seniors who need to close a funding gap in order to afford college.

The Aspen Education Foundation will receive its first-ever seven-figure donation with money from the Altec-Styslinger Foundation, funds specifically targeted at a program, The Aspen Promise, that aims to close the final funding gap for local students heading to college. The donation was announced Monday.

AEF’s new executive director, Cynthia Chase, recounted hearing Dr. Kathy Klug, the college counselor who founded The Aspen Promise two years ago, speak of a graduating senior who was likely to have his university dreams dashed because of a $1,000 funding shortfall. Under Klug’s direction, The Aspen Promise was created with an initial gift from Gary and Darlene Lichtenwalter, and that student and others have been the beneficiaries.

“It was such a desperate situation at the 11th hour. That won’t happen again,” Chase said Monday during her second week at AEF’s helm.

The Altec-Styslinger Foundation’s gift will generate $50,000 a year in perpetuity for The Aspen Promise. According to a press release, the donors intend to follow the students they support throughout their college experience.

In a prepared statement, Klug said, “The Styslingers’ gift contributes to the sustainability of our promise to close this gap.”

It’s estimated that about 85 percent of Aspen High School students require some financial aid; the class of 2018 received over $360,000 in money from 45 local businesses.

Community is key

Chase officially started July 1, but had been an AEF board member for over two years prior. She replaces Brooke Bedingfield, who resigned in May. Ileana Morales, AEF’s development and events associate, left around the same time, and Michelle Sherlock of Snowmass Village has been newly hired for the position.

Bedingfield had met the Styslingers last fall at a reception for new parents held by the AEF, and was involved in bringing the gift to fruition.

Chase said Monday she hopes over time to help foster similar endowments for cherished and long-standing Aspen School District programs such as robotics, college counseling, International Baccalaureate and outdoor education, as she settles in with the nonprofit that has donated over $12 million to the district over 27 years.

“When I look at our public schools, a lot of times people think we have this amazing public school system and it’s funded from our taxes. A large part of that is true. But one of the big things I’m trying to communicate is that programs above the standard bar are not funded through taxes but AEF and the community,” she said.

The district grapples with about a $1,300 annual funding gap per student, according to AEF. Last year there were over 1,700 students enrolled in pre-K through grade 12, including the Aspen Community School.

AEF’s popular Flamingo benefit raised over $500,000 this year, and a spring fund drive was targeted to bring in about $300,000. Colorado ranks every year among the bottom 10 states in funding public education.

In 2016, the Aspen School District board of education approved a donor-recognition policy in order to find other ways to address the annual shortfall. Renaming a facility such as the District Theatre is seen as an acceptable use of this policy, Chase said.

“But there will not be a donor wall that lists names of people,” according to Chase. She said AEF is sensitive to community feedback on a wall displaying names of contributors after push-back from some parents.

Chase said she has three children in the school system, as does Sherlock, which provides a good opportunity to gauge community response.

Madeleine Osberger is a Contributing Editor for Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at madski@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @Madski99