I learned a lot this week about the sudden departure of Aspen High School Principal Art Abelmann. If you will recall, on Dec. 2 I wrote about speculation, did a little myself and wound it up by pointing out that I was not the only one doing it and that, in fact, unhealthy conjecture was running loose at the risk of undermining the foundation of trust we have in our school system. Which makes me wonder why it took me almost 900 words to say what I just said in one sentence.
At any rate, today I am going to tell you what happened in this incident, speculation about which has been roiling the gossip of local coffeehouses into a frothy mess. I will treat parts of the story delicately - not in respect of any confidentiality agreement but in respect of people and because decency demands it.
The first thing you need to know is that there are no villains in this story or skeletons in the closets ... except in the science labs, of course. The school district superintendent did not take advantage of circumstance in order to implement a secret agenda. There was no "old guard" posse of vigilante teachers maintaining control over the AHS teachers lounge through intimidation. The school board was not compromised in any way in ratifying a solution to this problem. AHS was and is still a great school of high integrity.
The second thing you need to know is that there is nobody within the Aspen School District familiar with the specifics talking about this. They are honoring their word. To put together the pieces of this story, I spoke with many people who spend time at our schools and are familiar with its operations. We should be grateful for the continuous view into our educational institutions that we are afforded in Aspen.
So, as plainly as I can put it: Art Abelmann, in his first assignment as a high school principal, was not a good fit for AHS. It's that simple.
From the beginning, Abelmann raked the nerves of more than a few teachers at AHS. Apparently, during an introductory meeting he stated that he was aware of a sense of entitlement by the staff. It was a comment general in nature, and he provided no examples of what he was concerned about. It might have been a foot-in-mouth moment, but it left only the wrong one to start out on.
His first year was marked by inadequate communication with teachers and students. Monitoring classrooms did not appear to be a high priority. "Heavy-handed" and "intimidating" might have been accurately used to describe his management style. This is not to suggest that one needs to be a back-slapping flesh-presser to run a high school. Rather it is to point out that Abelmann's style didn't mesh with the time-tested, result-proven, Aspen-unique culture at AHS.
This spring, an incident occurred that many are at least partially familiar with. A member of the staff was offended enough by the principal's repeated comments regarding her personal life that she filed a complaint with the superintendent's office. Although no legal actions were taken and no monetary settlement was involved with the case, the incident further cemented the prevailing feeling that Abelmann's personality and management style were not right for AHS.
Fortunately, you do not have to draw your conclusions solely from my words. The 2011 Colorado Department of Education TELL Survey provides ample support. It was completed in May of this year, and 100 percent of the teachers at AHS participated. In the section regarding school leadership, AHS rated abysmally in several measures of note.
When asked, concerning administrative leadership, if "there is an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect within the school," only 29.8 percent of AHS teachers replied there was. For comparison, that number in Aspen Middle School was 90.7 percent. For the statement "School leadership communicates with the faculty adequately," just 34.8 percent of AHS teachers agreed. At Aspen Elementary School the number was more than double that. Finally, when queried about whether "faculty and leadership have a shared vision," only 21.3 percent of AHS teachers thought they did. The average for Aspen middle and elementary schools was 71 percent.
Abelmann began the current school year under this now quantified dark cloud of scant support with every intention of fulfilling the second and final year of his contract, but there could have been little doubt that it would not be renewed. Undoubtedly his morale was low and his job performance negatively impacted. On top of this, Abelmann recently suffered a personal loss. Shortly thereafter, another personal setback. There was nothing sinister or sordid, just sad; human suffering that we all must face at one time or another. However, they were the straws that broke this camel's heavily burdened back.
Abelmann was ready to leave, but also needed his paycheck. AHS was ready to go in a different direction, too, but didn't want to fire him in respect to his career. In the end, a means for everybody to move forward was put together. By mutual consent, it was agreed that Abelmann would resign immediately, receive a $30,000 severance payment, and the School District was bound not to discuss the circumstances of his departure. That's it.
And, I hope this puts the issue to rest. No more stones need overturning and no person involved needs further pestering. The community should remain confident that things are good at Aspen High School. In regard to what the Colorado TELL Survey said about whether our teachers feel that "the community [they] serve is supportive of this school," the affirmative responses: 100 percent.