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Culture Shift: Aspen School District eyes policy and procedure to address climate and culture

Aspen School District eyes policy and procedure to address climate and culture

Students arrive at Aspen Middle School on Wednesday, April 27, 2022.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times
Superintendent David Baugh, right, presents a parting gift to outgoing board members Susan Marolt, left, and Dwayne Romero during the board of education meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, inside the Aspen School District offices. Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times.

The staff at Aspen’s public schools have faced an avalanche of change over the last three years. Nearly every single district and school administrative leadership role has turned over once, some twice, since 2019. The district is rolling out the “IB for All” program, with International Baccalaureate framework for all students in kindergarten through 12th grade; some teachers are navigating new math and literacy curricula too. A new academic calendar eliminated early release days last year; a newer one will bring them back this fall.

And at the same time, the district has been updating processes that aim to standardize systems for everything from rent for staff housing to financial budgeting. While teachers teach, they’re also navigating “changes in how we process things like reimbursement forms, and paperwork, and sub requests and things like that,” said Stephanie Nixon, the president of the Aspen Education Association teachers union.

“There (have been all) these new systems, and with new systems and new people, a lot of things are very frustrating — things that we knew how to do, like, ‘I knew where the form was, and I would fill out the form and I would get it done,’ have either moved, or there’s new processes,” Nixon said.



“I understand that we might need the new processes, but it’s been very hard for people to learn a new curriculum, change everything they’ve been doing in class, teach a regular class, and then learn, like, where all the new forms are, how we get all these things,” she added. “It’s been really difficult.”

It boils down to new policies and new people, according to district human resources director Amy Littlejohn.




“I’ve just heard, quite a bit, and I’m sure you have heard it, too: There’s just been discontent with district processes, and pretty much the whole district leadership has turned over in the last two years,” the district’s human resources director Amy Littlejohn said in an interview. “So that’s a big change and a lot to deal with in an organization. … A lot of that change is really wearing on people.”

ATTRACT AND RETAIN

Both of those factors add an “Aspen specific” layer to the staff retention conundrum that schools are facing across the country, Littlejohn said in an interview.

When the district sent out its intent to return forms to see which staff would come back for the 2022-23 school year, “the amount of staff that were unsure was a little troubling to me,” Littlejohn said.

During a Board of Education presentation in February, with that uncertainty in mind, she projected turnover of 15% to 24% of the district’s certified staff, like teachers, counselors and speech therapists. If her projections were correct, the district would need to fill around 20 to 35 certified positions for the 2022-23 school year.

The latest data indicates Littlenjohn’s projections were pretty darn close. As of May 10, a total of 22 teachers and other certified staff — around 14.6% of the district’s certified employees — had indicated they don’t plan on working in the district next year, according to statistics she provided via email. A few of those are taking a leave of absence and a half-dozen are retiring; the rest are resignations.

At least three administrators and 10 support staff (like paraprofessionals, preschool teachers, food service, and transportation workers) don’t plan on returning next year either, Littlejohn wrote, bringing the count up to at least 35 departing staffers among the district’s 260 or so employees. Those stats don’t include facilities staff — they’re year-round, at-will employees who can resign at any time.

The district is in “full recruiting mode” to get vacancies filled by the start of the school year, Littlejohn wrote in an email. And numbers are subject to change as the district tries to convince people to stay and some staff decide later in the year whether they’ll leave, Littlejohn said in an interview.

It’s that keeping-people-around component that’s on Nixon’s mind.

“I do think they understand that we need to attract talented and dedicated people, but I think … the retention piece is sort of floating around there,” Nixon said. “It’s like, what’s the plan for the people that are here?”

Students work on in a classroom at Aspen High School on Wednesday, April 27, 2022.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Part of the plan is bolstering tangible benefits, like housing and pay.

A bond-funded initiative to acquire more staff housing has already resulted in dozens more units for the district’s portfolio, all of which will be priced between $600 and $900 monthly per bedroom depending on location. The housing is a tool for both attracting and retaining staff, according to Housing Director Elen Woods-Mitchell. That means some units are used as a “hiring tool” for hard-to-fill positions, she said. Other units are allocated to district employees using a lottery.

As for pay, district employees are bound to a salary schedule based on their qualifications and years of experience. The district can’t up the ante for just one or a few staffers to keep them from leaving, but the district is currently negotiating negotiating salary schedule pay increases, according to Littlejohn.

(Nixon noted that since the Roaring Fork School District passed a mill levy to raise teacher salaries, staff who already live downvalley can now find more competitive wages with a shorter commute. The updated 2021-22 salary schedule for Roaring Fork School District certified staff shows a salary floor of $46,595; at Aspen School District, it’s $46,000.)

But part of staff retention is also more abstract, Littlejohn said.

“I think that climate and culture is probably the number one thing that contributes to retainment in an organization,” she said. “It’s just so important that people want to stay at an organization. … and that’s kind of what we want to focus on for retainment: making sure people want to stay.”

POLICY AND PROCEDURE

Which, sometimes, means getting into the operational policy and procedure, according to Board of Education President Katy Frisch.

It’s the kind of “super wonky” work that Frisch sees as a critical component to improving the district’s climate and culture, even though she acknowledges might not set anyone’s heart aflutter.

“It’s hard to know what’s driving unhappiness in a community, but. … if things aren’t working well, that does not help,” she said.

“My view is that a lot of that procedural stuff, as boring as it is, it’s super necessary,” she added. “And there was a lot of it, and we’re still fixing a lot of it.”

PULSE-CHECK

As for knowing what’s driving unhappiness: The district contracted with consultant Liz Wilson to administer a climate and culture “pulse check” last fall as a followup to an expansive assessment from the spring of 2019.

Select 2021 survey results that Wilson presented in March indicated that staff felt valued and empowered but also struggled with an “unhealthy” amount of stress and cited a need for more quality communication. As with the 2019 survey, the desire for more collaboration and less competition emerged. Respondents also indicated a desire for more face-to-face interaction and relationship building with district leaders.

Wilson’s presentation emphasized “transformational change leadership,” the years-long process of shifting an organization’s vision and priorities that she said is more difficult than “typical change management,” which involves a few defined changes like system updates or building renovations.

The report reaffirmed what Superintendent David Baugh already sensed, he said in an interview.

“The report kind of validated our feelings already, right, which is that people are under a lot of stress, we’re not where we want to be exactly, that all of us are doing too much, and that we’re facing an uncertain future, which is very stressful,” Baugh said. “It validated, you know, our senior leadership, concerns and frustrations.”

But without apples-to-apples results nor several years of data to compare, the 2021 survey “gave us information, but it’s not what we need to really make the fundamental, underlying change, and that is the consistency and the methodology and that whole trust-building processes that will drive us… to move forward,” Board of Education Vice President Jonathan Nickell said in an interview.

As of the afternoon of May 10, district officials were still waiting on the final, comprehensive report from Wilson.

Administrative turnover also impacted fundamental processes the district uses all the time — systems for tracking human resources information, for instance, that really “systems” at all, according to Littlejohn.

“Those systems have been so neglected and changed with different leadership that there wasn’t really a system in place to be honest with you, in some aspects for some things,” Littlejohn said. There’s a “frustration factor” when those systems aren’t right, she said. And it’s hardly the only example that administrators have found in the district.

Both Littlejohn and Superintendent David Baugh described the previous staff housing allocation system as “willy nilly.” Frisch noted that a few years ago, the way the district allocated its funding made it “really hard to track how we were spending money, and what we were spending money on.”

Also, Board of Education policies had been modified over the course of about a decade and a half, muddying the waters, Frisch said.

“When I read through them, my eyes water,” she said. “There’s inconsistencies, there’s overlap, something’s mentioned in one place and another place. It seems really too — way more complicated than it needs to be.”

Superintendent David Baugh takes part in the board of education meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, inside the Aspen School District offices. Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times.

Even curriculum processes need work, according to a curriculum audit presentation by learning and leadership consultant Joellen Killion, who spoke at a May 4 Board of Education meeting. The audit, which focused on science, world languages and social studies programs, found those programs lacked fully documented, written curricula.

“When you have a written curriculum, teachers know where to go, they know what’s expected, they know what resources are available,” Killion said in the meeting. “They know what has been used in the past, and they’re able to tie together all of these parts and pieces of effective teaching and learning without having to invent this each and every year, which is an enormous burden.

“It is an enormous burden for a very experienced teacher, and an almost overwhelming burden for a novice teacher,” she added.

Changes are taking shape to address those inconsistencies, and to add transparency and fairness to systems that lacked it before.

Housing is now allocated by lottery, and rents are standardized by zone and number of bedrooms, according to Woods-Mitchell.

Financial tracking is now broken down into smaller buckets that track spending and revenue in more detail, Frisch said.

The district has already adopted new curricula for literacy and math in some grades, according to assistant superintendent Tharyn Mulberry.

And the Board of Education spent nearly an hour and a half at an April meeting with Matt Cook from the Colorado Association of School Boards in a workshop on policy governance, which clearly delegates and delineates the work of the board and of the superintendent.

“Making sure that we’re treating people fairly and consistently — and that it’s really clear, like, ‘This is what you get and this is how you ask for it, and these are the resources available,’ I don’t necessarily think all of that was laid out well before,” Frisch said.

PANDEMIC PAINS

The COVID-19 pandemic created a host of stressors for staff who had to adapt to mask mandates, virtual learning, risk of virus exposure, frequent COVID testing, vaccine requirements, isolation policies and staffing shortages.

But Nixon wants to be clear that the pandemic isn’t the only factor adding strain to Aspen School District’s climate and culture.

An Aspen Education Association report to the Board of Education on March 23 indicated that teachers and staff felt like the results of the climate and culture survey were “explained away” and “invalidated” by pandemic factors.

Nixon said in an interview that that some staff who watched consultant Wilson’s presentation felt like the message was, “’Oh, as soon as the pandemic is over, surely we can build back our culture,’” she said in an interview.

“I’m not quite sure if that’s going to happen” based on pandemic circumstances alone, she said.

The faces of senior leadership see these changes as a good thing — a way to formalize and standardize a system, insulate it from the impacts of staff turnover and create more structural fairness across the board.

Frisch sees the work on HR systems as progress toward being “more consistent and transparent and fair.” She also said the premise of the district’s strategic plan — approved earlier this year — was to take on “all those operational issues that need to be addressed in a very methodical way.”

Baugh sees the updated housing system as an effort to be “equitable and professional and transparent,” with “no favoritism.” Littlejohn noted that efforts to add transparency and fairness to the housing system will help build trust in that program.

But that still doesn’t make the transition easy, Nixon noted. Turnover in administrative roles makes that learning curve steeper, too.

The pandemic made it harder to connect with people in person at the same time that there was a wave of new people to connect with; even Nixon, as the president of the teachers union, is still getting to know some of the fresher faces, she acknowledged.

“I think that adding positions, and then not knowing who’s in those positions, and not knowing who to go to if you have a problem, or not knowing who deals with this — responsibilities change, and job duties change,” she said. “And sometimes, if you have this feeling like, ‘I don’t know who to go to,’ you lose that sense of, you know, a family atmosphere, and I think that has happened as well, and I hope we can build that back.”

Stacey Weiss, right, is sworn in as one of two new members to the Aspen school board during the board of education's meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, inside the Aspen School District offices. Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times.

FAMILY TIES

That’s a sticky spot for the district, even as it updates its policy and procedures: A sense of family isn’t something you can create from systems alone.

“In an ideal world, if we had all this other policy and procedure stuff, we still always have to work on building culture, and creating the ‘who we are,’” Frisch said.

It isn’t something you can create all at once, Board of Education member Stacey Weiss said.

“We’re not producing widgets for sale to make a profit,” Weiss said. “We’re working with human beings, and so relationships always have to be worked on, just like in a family or in a marriage or anything like that. With this many people over time, there’s a lot of ongoing relationship maintenance work.”

Right now, those relationships are in flux too, Nixon said.

The sense of family she once felt in the district has “eroded” as people leave and others arrive. That has a “huge impact” in the programs the district values, like experiential education, she said. She also recognizes that building that sense of family back will be a challenge with the amount of turnover the district faces.

“It gets harder as people leave,” Nixon said. “They take a piece of the district with them, and it’s hard to get that back. … You kind of feel almost like you’re sort of being left behind, and you’re hoping that the people that we’re going to find are going to value that culture as much as they did.”

Here’s where a bit of competition might actually be a good thing, Nixon noted, as the district works to define what’s important.

“Maybe it’s time to relook at who we have here: Who we have left, and what the district, what the people here value, and what the community values in their district. … Maybe it doesn’t look like it did 20 years ago, but maybe it looks close, or maybe it’s better, or maybe it’s different, right?” Nixon said.

“I do think there’s always going to be a gap between reality and, like, perfection,” she added. “But I do think we’re a highly competitive staff who wants to get there, right? I do think that we really want to work together to figure out what that is.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect more up-to-date retention statistics and incorporate edits that were added to the print version.

kwilliams@aspentimes.com


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