A New Era: David Baugh takes the reins at Aspen School District
for the Aspen Times Weekly
When David Baugh and Tharyn Mulberry were asked to discuss their careers in education for an Aspen Times Weekly story, it was if they had previously coordinated their responses.
Fair enough. The two already had survived the questionnaire ringer earlier this year at the Aspen School District, where both applied to be its superintendent.
From Q&A sessions with parents, students, teachers, staff and school board members — to essay-length answers they provided during the interview process — Baugh and Mulberry saw their backgrounds and resumes more poked and prodded than a state fair cow, and their reference checks going back more than 25 years.
Their background checks turned out fine, and on March 31 the Board of Education announced it had picked Baugh to be the Aspen School District’s next superintendent.
In the same announcement, the board said Mulberry, principal of Aspen High School, would be the assistant superintendent.
Members of the Board of Education said they see the two as the right fit for the district moving forward.
Baugh comes from the outside looking in, with a resume that includes experience as a crew coach in Mercychurst, Pennsylvania, from 1990-94, to administrative work beginning in 2009 when he became assistant superintendent of Bensalem Township District in Pennsylvania.
Mulberry, a native of Lamar on the southeastern plains of Colorado, has been principal of Aspen High since the fall semester of 2015, and has managed to win over what can be a demanding parent base.
They both thrive on engaging students and faculty, something the board will expect of them.
“I’m a terrible desk driver, and I’m much better at being out, looking in the classrooms and being out in the community,” Baugh said.
What their background checks might or might not have revealed was that Baugh, 58, and Mulberry, 50, got the education bug by working with impaired and special-needs children.
For Baugh, it was when he was living in upstate New York, where he began teaching visually impaired kids.
“My first teaching job out of college was actually working at migrant farm camps in rural upstate New York,” he recalled. “And while I was doing that, I had an opportunity to get a special-ed degree and wound up teaching blind and visually impaired kids for a while, and I really enjoyed it. But at the same time I was trying to make the Olympic rowing team.”
Baugh was an itinerant teacher of visually impaired students from 1986-89, while chasing his Olympic dreams.
“Back then you either moved to Boston or Philadelphia if you wanted to make the team,” he said. “So I moved to Philadelphia and one thing leads to another, and by the time I was 30, my deal was if you make the team or you don’t, you’re either on the team or you’re going to go do adult stuff. I didn’t make the team, so I went on to do adult stuff.”
Mulberry, 50, originally wanted to be an attorney. He majored in political science at CSU-Pueblo with an eye on law school. But working with disabled and challenged students gave him another calling.
“I did it for three months and I continued to sub in other classrooms,” he said. “It was fun and the teachers involved said ‘You have a real talent for this.’”
The two also had a yearning for the Colorado mountain life.
Mulberry got it when he was living in Breckenridge in his 20s, and later he and his wife agreed that raising their two children in a mountain town would be ideal.
Baugh made no secret that Aspen’s outdoor lifestyle was a big attractant for him, while his sole daughter lives not far down the road in Avon.
“On a personal note, I am deeply interested in this position because I am an avid artist, athlete and outdoorsman,” he wrote in his cover letter to the ASD, noting he skis downhill and nordic, hikes, backpacks and fly-fishes — and is an “amateur ceramics artist” as well.
On July 1, Baugh and Mulberry — with more than half a century of combined experience in academics — begin work in the next chapter of their careers in education at the ASD.
Without the global pandemic, they already had plenty of challenges ahead. With it, their decisions will be handled with the pandemic in mind, the two understanding that the next day might see a new public health order that changes everything.
What they can control is filling some top-level positions in the district, including the director vacancies in the district’s curriculum, special education and facilities departments.
“We’ve got some big searches ahead,” Baugh said, noting he has a network of contacts he will be tapping, though he said he won’t be bringing any of his current staff with him from Pennsylvania.
Given that Mulberry is leaving his principal position means another opening, which the district hopes to have filled by the end of May.
By the time those key posts are filled — Liz Meador has agreed to stay as principal of the middle school for the 2020-21 year — the administrative office will have had a near complete overhaul dating back to the January 2019 resignation of its human resources director Elizabeth Hodges.
Hodges’ exit came after it was reported that she did not tell her supervisors about a criminal past and April 2019 disbarment in Missouri until after they received an anonymous letter.
She was the first domino to fall, followed by Chief Financial Officer Kate Fuentes’ resignation in March 2019, then Superintendent John Maloy the following June.
Upcoming end-of-the semester exits include Heather Abraham leaving her position as director of special education and Jenna Barclay as curriculum director, while Gary Vavra, director of transportation facilities, is retiring.
There is also the district’s strategic plan — an effort led by outgoing Interim Superintendent Tom Heald that lays out the district’s vision for the future — that Baugh will inherit. As well, the Board of Education members are weighing the pros and cons of bringing a bond question to voters during the November elections.
The district could ask for up to $40 million in bonds for major capital expenditures that would used for building more teacher housing, relocating the bus barn, upgrading security and expanding learning, child-care, athletic and performing-arts facilities.
“I’ve been mostly on the periphery of that conversation,” Baugh said. “I know it’s been under very serious consideration and I hope we go forward with it.”
Baugh’s top priority for now is seeing through his time at the 5,800-student Centennial School District in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where he was named the state’s superintendent of the year for 2020. For Mulberry, it’s finishing the high school year and figuring out — through continuing talks with the seniors — how the class of 2020 will have a graduation ceremony send-off, among other tasks.
Baugh and Mulberry said they are consistently in conversations about the upcoming school year and what it might or might not look like. Baugh said unless public orders preclude him from him from doing so, he plans to pack up the truck, with his yellow lab, Jake, and drive to Aspen. Jake is also a trained service dog — not for Baugh personally, but for him to bring to school and use with the students.
“If I have to take a two-week quarantine when I get there, I’ll just do it,” he said. “I can take the dog for long walks in the country.”
The Aspen School District began remote learning April 1 and will close out the school year with that format.
It has been a major adjustment for students, teachers and parents, as well as other district staff.
“The big things we’re talking about, besides the searches, are what are we going to do if the governor won’t let us open on time (in the fall),” Baugh said. “I want to have the district prepared as much as possible for that possibility.”
If public health restrictions extend into the summer — and there are ample reasons to believe they will — Baugh said he expects the toll to be felt.
“I’m picturing and most folks are picturing a really, really long summer where the kids aren’t reading a lot, they’re not writing a lot, they’re not doing a lot of numeracy, and we’ll see the scores probably dipping a little bit come September,” he said. “I see that as a really big part of our work. I think it’s an all-hands-on-deck scenario. If we’re allowed to open normally, there are going to be a lot of small groups and differentiated work and we’re going to make sure that our teachers are comfortable working on our kids with that.”
He added, “There’s no shortage of work for both of us to do. We’ve got curriculum work to do, and there’s going to be some regression from all of this time off, even though there is online learning. Online learning is not for everyone and it’s certainly not preferred by everyone.”
Whenever the classrooms bells ring, whenever that might be, will be music to their ears and the rest of the school community’s.
“Imagine once the restrictions are lifted,” Mulberry said. “It’s going to be a celebration.”
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