Aspen’s Board of Education gets pulse on climate, culture

District’s dominant cultures have competing values

The Aspen School District administrative offices and entrance to Aspen High School.
Kaya Williams/The Aspen Times

Staff responses to a “pulse check” survey on the climate and culture at Aspen School District show that staff feel valued and empowered to do things that create value, too, but they also struggle with an “unhealthy” amount of stress and say that quality communication is lacking.

The survey results also showed the district has two dominant cultures: competitive and collaborative, according to a presentation Wednesday night by consultant Liz Wilson at the Board of Education meeting.

There’s a tension between those two cultures, Wilson said, and there’s also a gap between the culture that staff want and the culture they say is the reality.

The Board of Education approved the survey last fall to get a snapshot of “how things are going” two years after a 2019 survey revealed a mixed bag of responses about the climate and culture at the district. The scope was narrower and simpler this time around, so it is not an apples-to-apples comparison, but it does give a sense of how staff are feeling.

Survey Logistics

The Board of Education approved the survey last fall as a way to gauge whether the climate and the culture at the district has changed since a survey in 2019 revealed a mixed bag of results.

The scope was narrower this time, with four sections instead of 11 and one open-ended question instead of eight. The 2021 iteration also eliminated review of the superintendent and Board of Education from the survey.

Survey administrators sent out 261 email invitations to complete the survey and got 176 responses, yielding a 67% response rate.

The goal was to get at least 70% participation among staff — the 2019 response rate was 69.9%. About half the staff had responded by Dec. 15, so the district extended the survey deadline to get more participation.

Wilson also conducted 15 interviews, each about an hour long, with pre-identified representatives from several different campus groups.

Wilson said the way things are going has a lot to do with change — both how much of it has happened in the past two years in a big-picture sense, and how long it takes to see “transformational change” manifest on the ground level.

Value, empowerment and stress

Around 74% of respondents agreed with the statement that “People are empowered to do things that create value” and that “My leader shows me that they are confident in my skills and my ability to do my job well,” according to the survey results. (About 9% were neutral and 15% disagreed.)

And roughly 66% agreed with the statement “​​My leader(s) recognizes me in a way that makes me feel valued.” (Approximately 15% were neutral and 19% disagreed.)

At the same time, nearly 77% of survey respondents disagreed with the idea that “people manage their workloads effectively without the stress becoming unhealthy.” About 17% of respondents were “neutral” and approximately 7% agreed with the statement.

That data on stress is “pretty consistent with what we’re hearing in the rest of the world” — the COVID-19 pandemic has been a significant stressor that added to the stress educators already face — Wilson said, but district-specific factors like high turnover in leadership positions and the change that comes with rolling out new curricula can also have an impact.

“The world overall has been drinking from a firehose. … It’s just been really, really intense, so if you layer on top of that, just the things that we know that have been changes in the district as well, and in K through 12 education and in Colorado, it just intensifies the experience,” Wilson said.

Poor communication and a corresponding lack of trust can also have an impact on stress and mitigation, Wilson said. Same goes for the presence or lack of a “growth mindset that fosters learning and innovation” and a sense of empowerment and control — that “people can participate in the right amount of decisions that impact their work,” according to the presentation.

(In response to the statement “Information is shared openly among staff members and teams; communication is effective,” around 43% disagreed, 18% were neutral and 39% agreed.)

The report of high stress wasn’t surprising to Superintendent David Baugh, he said during the meeting.

“We (were) fully aware that, even prior to this survey, that this was going to be a huge issue,” Baugh said. “We do think that the fallout from two years of pandemic-related (challenges) trying to deliver education has been really grueling, and we need to recognize that.”

He also said the district was aware of other feedback survey respondents provided on the need for better communication and more clear administrative processes. Turnover at the administrative offices has impacted stress and the level of trust among staff, Baugh said in a recap of takeaways; turnover at the schools has left some “grieving” for those who left, he said.

The district is working on improving communications, implementing a strategic plan, tightening up processes, boosting face-to-face interaction and bolstering mental health outreach, Baugh said.

As Board President Katy Frisch put it: “We heard you, and we are working on it.”

Competing values

Survey results also indicated that “the experience is out of sync with the expectations” for what district staff want the culture to be and what they say the culture currently is.

Respondents identified both a “collaborative” culture and a “competing” culture in the survey, with a desire for the district to lean more collaborative and a perception that the district has instead tilted more toward the competitive side than it was in 2019, according to Wilson.

Those two cultures have “competing values,” Wilson said. It’s possible to reduce some of the tension there, but not to eliminate it. (Competition, she noted, is “characteristic of the Aspen community in general.”)

And making that shift happen takes more than a couple of years — more like three to five “cycles” or academic years at least, she said. It won’t happen in a straight line, either; as the district implements its strategic plan and priorities, there’s bound to be some twists and turns even with project management and framework in place.

“What you’re embarking on with Aspen School District is what we call transformational change,” Wilson said. “It’s systemic, it’s almost reinventing the organization. There are changes throughout the system, and there isn’t just one change, and it’s by nature unpredictable. Even the most planful will have things that can only be predicted so much, and there are learnings along the way.”


See more