Aspen Board of Education weighs in on climate and culture survey
One of the burning questions about the Aspen School District’s climate and culture study is how the Board of Education plans to respond to it. A 30-minute discussion among board members Monday offered a glimpse of what’s to come.
“I feel strongly that something should be done,” said board vice president Susan Marolt, who led Monday’s board meeting. “We need to take these recommendations to heart and listen to what we’ve heard, so I think that’s important.”
Board members and superintendent John Maloy have been reviewing data relating to the climate and culture study the board commissioned earlier this year and are in the early stages of plotting a course on what to do next. The situation is a touchy one, given that the board last year decided not to renew the rolling contract of Maloy, who became superintendent in March 2010, past its last day of June 30, 2021.
The BOE also has been evaluating Maloy’s performance and is scheduled to meet with the superintendent privately today, citing executive-session privilege. The results of the study that began in January and included surveying the district’s faculty and staff were released last week by the Denver consulting firm Wilson Foxen.
Monday’s meeting marked the first time board members spoke publicly about their takeaways from the survey, which covered such topics as the level of trust staffers have for the leadership, communications within the district and staff sentiment about whether they have the necessary tools to do their jobs and whether senior leadership has properly focused on maximizing students’ potential.
“Some of the stuff in the report I thought was really interesting, and your perception of it is very different whether or not you are placing values on the information that was given,” said board member Sandra Peirce.
In other words, some aspects of the survey’s findings might resonate with some but not with others.
For board member Susan Zimet, who offered some of the most pointed remarks, results of the survey’s questions about senior leadership — the BOE and superintendent — were concerning, especially that 55.2% of the responses either disagreed or strongly disagreed that the district’s senior leadership “can be relied upon to do the right thing even when it’s challenging or difficult.” Nearly 16% of the responses either agreed or strongly agreed, 22.1% neither agreed nor disagreed, and another 7% checked the “not applicable” box.
“That might be the worst score,” she said of the 55%.
Zimet said the board should prioritize addressing that question’s outcome, as well as others including a combined 45.6% that disagreed or strongly disagreed that senior leadership “takes time to listen and understand another employee’s point of view,” while another 43.3% reported they either disagree or strongly disagree that leadership “shares the right information, at the right time, with the right people.”
She also pointed to survey results showing 39% of the responses either disagreed or strongly disagreed that senior leadership “values innovation and treats setbacks and mistakes as a valuable opportunity to learn.” The same question yielded 19.8% saying they agreed or strongly agreed.
“I think these are horrific,” she said. “I trust the statistics.”
She added later that “I think we’re going to need to have some very serious conversations about what we need to do about these abysmal results.”
Yet the responses to other questions — such as “Senior District Leadership focuses on ensuring ASD students reach their full potential” — showed 51.7% saying they agreed or strongly agreed, compared with 18.6% who disagreed or strongly disagreed.
Other encouraging results, Marolt said, showed staff members feel they have autonomy in the workplace “and they feel they’re in control of their work and we train them well and give them authority to make their decisions. I think that’s a positive that we should build on.”
Consultant Liz Wilson, who led the study, previously remarked that the study showed the Aspen community is highly competitive, and that trickles down into academic life at the Aspen schools. That driven nature, however, is juxtaposed against what the study showed a lack of collaboration at the campus. Board member Sheila Wills asked if it’s possible for collaboration and competition to thrive together, while Zimet said they should not be considered mutually exclusive.
“The question I have is, as a high-performing school district, we have always focused on the competition,” Wills said. “We have always focused on getting those test scores up and making sure everybody is performing at the highest level possible. … To me, I think the first question we need to ask our community — we know what our staff thinks — but we need to talk to our student community, we need to talk to the outside community about what do you value. What are your values here?”
“I think, to me, the primary question to me is: ‘Can we maintain a focus on high student achievement, while being a more caring, collaborative cultural climate?’”
Maloy said it’s a conversation that needs to happen.
“We, obviously I and the board, have to find a balance between high performance on our students and our staff, being supportive of that, and willing to increase the collaboration and increase that trust,” he said. “This will be a wonderful, healthy conversation to have among ourselves but also among the staff.”
Board president Dwayne Romero did not attend the meeting because of personal matters.
Prior to the discussion, a few community members offered their thoughts about the study, including Warren Klug, husband of Kathy Klug, former head of the high school’s college counseling department and now a consultant to the district.
It should come as no surprise, Warren Klug said, that people aren’t universally happy at an organization with more than 300 employees. The study’s results, he argued, shouldn’t have a bearing on Maloy’s employment status.
“I don’t understand why we have people on the board or around us who are so dead-set on the termination of the superintendent,” he said. “I believe the working relationship between the superintendent and the board is dysfunctional.”
Klug, the grandfather of a second-grader at the elementary school, said Aspen schools are excellent.
“I would urge you to work together and make our school district and our schools even better, because you are the people who can make it better.”
Parent Anna Zane, however, said the survey’s outcome is evident and sends a message.
“The data clearly shows we have issues with senior leadership,” she said, saying “it’s time” for a change at the top.