Aspen teacher dropping out of district over treatment during pandemic
A longtime teacher at Aspen public schools told the board of education Monday he is quitting his job because of demanding parents and leaders unnecessarily harsh on teachers during the pandemic.
Vince Johnson said his resignation takes effect March 9 after 17 years as a district employee at both the middle and high schools. He currently works at the middle school, where Amy Kendziorski, currently the director of exceptional student services at Eagle County Schools, will take the helm as principal, it was announced at the meeting. She will take over for Elizabeth Meador, the school’s interim principal the last two years.
Johnson pinned his frustration on the school board and leadership at the administrative level.
“The current work environment is beyond toxic, and I can no longer be a witness to the bullying and hatred,” Johnson said at the bi-monthly school board meeting.
Two of the three board members responding to Johnson’s remarks said they viewed the district differently than his portrayal of it.
“I would just say, sorry to see you go. Wish it wasn’t that way,” board member Jonathan Nickell said, adding he had “a much different perception of how events played out, and I think a lot of things you said were just not necessarily something that we would agree upon. Neither here nor there, just to say ’look, I’m sorry to see you go and I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.’ Good luck.“
Board President Susan Zimet said, “I didn’t see the year that way, but we’re all sitting in a different position. And I, too, am sorry that is the impression you have of this past year, and we’re sorry to see you go.”
Recalling the climate and culture study the district launched in 2019 to address staff morale and other issues amid a crumbling administration, board member Susan Marolt said teachers’ concerns cannot be discredited.
“Regardless of whether we saw the year that way, these are, I think, concerning comments and feelings,” she said. “And we need to acknowledge them and address them, and I think we’re hopefully taking steps in that direction.”
Board members Katy Frisch and Dwayne Romero did not respond to Johnson’s comments about leaving.
His exit comes after Wednesday’s meeting among administrative leaders, Nickell and Romero, and Aspen Education Association reps over the gulf between teachers and the community. The AEA represents teachers in the district.
Part of their talk concerned results from recent AEA teacher surveys indicating some faculty members don’t plan to put down or keep their roots in the district. One survey, conducted from Jan. 12 to 17, showed 19.4% of the respondents saying they were either leaving the district or seriously considering it, and an additional 26.2% replying they weren’t sure or preferred not to answer the question.
AEA president Stephanie Nixon, also a teacher, said the talks — which were initiated by the teacher organization — were fruitful. District leaders agreed to hold one or two town halls this month to address the ongoing pandemic-related issues and rift with the faculty, and board members were agreeable to making themselves accessible to teachers on campus during school hours.
Yet for Johnson, the bridge-building talks didn’t change his decision.
“The AEA, upper administration, and a couple of board members met last week and decided to finally discuss some of these issues,” he said. “For myself, this is too little, too late.
“I’ve worked for the district with very challenging and difficult situations at the high school and middle school for these 17 years. I know struggles, successes and failures, and yet this is what has broken me.”
As the global pandemic nears its first year of completion, the Aspen School District is in a similarly situated position as other districts across the country struggling to find common ground among teachers, administrators and parents.
As well, the district has had a near makeover in its administrative offices since the summer, with David Baugh becoming superintendent July 1. The past year also has seen new upper-management hires with directors of human resources, student services and transportation.
The district’s elementary, middle and high schools, as well as on-campus Cottage preschool, also have endured a year of class quarantines, building closures, changing schedules, online classes, COVID-19 outbreaks, teacher shortages, academic regression, and sweeping changes to how courses are instructed and attended in the new world of social restrictions.
That’s just skimming the surface.
There also have been contentious school board meetings regarding schools reopening to in-person learning. While all Aspen schools were fully open to in-person learning Feb. 1 for the first time since the pandemic kicked in, heated discussions took place among teachers, parents and district officeholders at school board meetings during the prior months.
Reading from his resignation letter, Johnson told the board the district “was nowhere near prepared” at the start of the 2020-21 school year to address how to open and operate schools safely.
“Then the backlash began,” he said, ”in these very board meetings. It came from district-level administration, the board of education, and families all at once. We — the front-line educators — were to blame for everything: We didn’t try hard enough. We weren’t willing to risk enough. We didn’t care about our students, et cetera.
“These meetings were filled with a barrage of misinformation and endless rhetoric. There were decrees that ‘everything is fine’ and we just need to remain silent and do what we are told. We were shamed publicly. Some voices were heard much louder than others, and their influence seemed to outweigh our concerns.”
The tipping point for teachers arguably came when board member Frisch, speaking at a January meeting when Pitkin County was under Red-level restrictions with one of the highest COVID-19 incidence rates in the country, alleged teachers of engaging in off-campus, maskless behavior that potentially caused class closures due to outbreaks. She apologized at the next meeting Feb. 1.
For teacher and coach Larissa Bohn, Frisch’s apology was too late. And, like Johnson, she went public with her grievances to the board, telling its five members that teachers have been bullied by district higher-ups.
“I’m going to be completely honest with you: The comments from the last board meeting absolutely catalyzed my decision to put in my two-weeks notice on Friday,” Bohn told Frisch at the Feb. 1 meeting. “I do not want to be part of a system that continues to bully the people I love: teachers.”
Nixon said Johnson is one of the best at what he does.
“I’ve known Vince my entire career at the ASD, so I just wanted to say he’s one of the best paraprofessionals I have ever known,” she said. “He is very dedicated to his job, and it’s a great loss for the ASD.”
Zimet asked Johnson if he would be willing to speak at a board meeting about leadership’s shortcomings during the pandemic.
“I would love to honor and learn from his 17 years of experience and what we’ve done wrong and what we could do better,” she said.
Said Johnson: “I appreciate that, Susy, and I’d be willing to discuss that.”
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