Aspen school board: Nickell, Frisch pull away in field of 6 candidates
Voters on Tuesday elected Katy Frisch and Jonathan Nickell to the Aspen School District Board of Education after a spirited and occasionally contentious campaign season.
As of 11 p.m., Nickell had collected 1,540 votes, good enough for 26.1% of the ballots cast, to be the frontrunner. Frisch’s 1,505 votes, or 25.5%, gave her the second spot.
Placing third was Jim Pomeroy, with 921 votes (15.6%). John Galambos’ 829 votes gave him 14.1% of the showing, while Bettina Slusar (697 votes, 11.8%) and Patsy Kurkulis (401 votes, 6.8%), rounded out the field.
For Frisch and Nickell, their triumphs came after their failed runs for school board in the past. Nickell finished fourth out of five candidates for the BOE in the November 2017 election; Frisch ran unsuccessfully in 2009.
When Nickell campaigned for the BOE in 2017, the District Accountability Committee member was critical of the school’s standardized testing performances, teacher compensation and leadership.
“I think it helped people get to know me,” Nickell said Tuesday night, “and also I remember when I lost the last election, even though I didn’t win, we had continued the dialogue and that continued into this election, and people continued to be aligned with that positive change that’s moving forward.”
The election covered a litany of issues the new board will have on its future docket of tasks, which includes completion of the district’s strategic plan, hiring a full-time principal of the middle school, addressing climate and culture issues, and finding additional housing and compensation to hire and retain teachers.
Top among the board’s immediate duties, however, is hiring a new superintendent to replace John Maloy, who retired in June after the board’s decision to not renew his three-year rolling contract dating back to June 2010.
The current board in September hired a Chicago firm to lead the superintendent search, set to start during the December holidays season. The final decision on the next superintendent will rest with the five-member board, which also includes Susan Marolt, Dwayne Romero and Susan Zimet.
With Sandra Peirce and Sheila Wills leaving their seats because of term limits, their vacancies attracted the six candidates who had varying ideas on how to improve the district.
Galambos, an architect, positioned himself as a candidate seeking collaboration among the district’s divided stakeholders, and disagreed with his opponents that the district’s situation was as dire as they portrayed it.
Frisch, while agreeing that broad changes are necessary at the district, starting at the top, tried to distance herself from the rhetoric about Maloy, and at one campaign forum was put on the defense for her limited role on the district’s financial advisory board, which has been nearly dormant the past two years. Yet Frisch said she made a decision early on “to run a campaign that was respectful and based on the reality of what’s going on in the district, in a respectful way.”
Frisch said Tuesday night she thought the electorate was turned off by the infighting at the school district while her approach resonated with them.
“I think I ran a good, clean campaign and one that my kids can be proud of,” said the mother of two children in the school district. “People who I spoke to appreciated what I had to say.”
Kurkulis and Slusar styled themselves as candidates who had the boldness to point out the district’s failings in the face of criticism from the district’s old guard.
Pomeroy, a native of Aspen who attended its public schools, emphasized the “whole child” concept on the campaign trail, while agreeing that the district needs improving.
Frisch and Nickell will replace Peirce and Wills, once the board’s president and vice president, who were strong supporters of Maloy despite the growing chorus of criticism against the superintendent over his management style.
In the fall of the 2018-19 school year, in the aftermath of published reports that the district’s HR director had been disbarred from the state of Missouri, a parents group — which included Kurkulis, Nickell and Slusar — focused on removing Maloy. Maloy and Wills publicly stated they supported the HR director, Elizabeth Hodges, because of what they said was her commendable job performance with the ASD, despite her past transgressions for unethical behavior as a probate attorney.
Using that as the catalyst for their revolt, the parents also accused Maloy of leading a district where both academic performances and staff satisfaction were decaying. Maloy supporters countered by accusing parents, a few disgruntled teachers and others of having a vendetta against the school district.
And over the past two weeks, Maloy wrote letters to both Aspen newspapers casting skepticism over the integrity and styles of Nickell and Slusar. Slusar, often outspoken about Maloy, also received anonymous hate mail, postmarked from Boston, accusing her of doing “grave harm in Aspen” because of her outspoken role with the parents group.
The district currently is under the leadership of interim Superintendent Tom Heald, who before that role was second in command to Maloy.
Frisch and Nickell will be sworn into the board Nov. 18.
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Campaign finance reports were due recently for candidates in the April 7 races for mayor and three council seats in Basalt. Only three of nine total candidates collected donations, according to their reports.