Farrell’s job hunt induced by a variety of factors
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Aspen School Board President Augie Reno said Friday that he would rather see embattled Superintendent Tom Farrell stay in town, but he doesn’t blame him for thinking about a move.
Farrell is among three finalists for the top job at the St. Vrain Valley School District in Longmont, about 40 miles north of Denver. If he ends up in charge of the 20,000-student district, it would mark the end of a 14-year career in Aspen.
Farrell has been in the cross hairs of a small group of angry parents bent on ousting him. Although they have yet to reveal their true motives, parents Carrie Morgridge and Laurie Michaels have told school board members that they are not willing to compromise on Farrell – they want him fired.
“Who can blame him for applying elsewhere?” Reno said. “What’s going on here is wrong – it’s sickening to me. I’ve never met a more ethical guy in my life than Tom Farrell.”
Farrell told The Aspen Times that the pressure he’s been receiving here is one of the reasons he is applying at St. Vrain. “That’s a big part of it,” Farrell said. “I haven’t looked for work anywhere else in 14 years.”
Farrell said he kept quiet about the application at St. Vrain because it is still a long way from being a done deal, and he didn’t want the news to distract from more important matters. News of his application was made public Wednesday night when the St. Vrain school board announced he was a finalist.
“Graduation is just two weeks away,” Farrell said. “All of our energy and focus belongs to the students.”
But there are other reasons Farrell is applying for a new job. His oldest son, Tom, who has been struggling with illness for more than a year, plans to return to the University of Colorado next fall, and a move to Longmont would allow them to spend more time together.
“Often in the past I’ve put my job ahead of my family, I’m embarrassed to say,” Farrell said. “This time my family comes first.”
Farrell also said he likes Longmont and the people he’s met there. He first visited the area last year to speak on alcohol and drugs after a St. Vrain high school student committed suicide.
Rick Samson, vice president of the St. Vrain Valley school board, said Farrell’s visit at a time of duress for many in the Front Range district left a strong impression on him and other board members. They were particularly impressed with his ability to talk with students, who came up to him at the end of the community forum.
“You have to be a community leader to do this job, but it’s extremely important that you are able to relate to the students,” Samson said.
Reno lauded Farrell’s personal relationships with students. “Kids know his name – what other district have you heard of where students know the superintendent’s name? There are even college students who come back and visit him to ask his advice,” he said.
With 1,300 or so students, the Aspen School District is considerably smaller than St. Vrain, which has about 20,000 students. Farrell said it would be an interesting challenge to go from a small- to a midsized district.
Asked if his experience in Aspen’s more intimate atmosphere would translate well to a bigger and busier district, Farrell said, “That’s something I’m going to have to answer to their satisfaction.”
Samson confirmed that Farrell’s lack of experience with larger districts is a concern for some board members. St. Vrain has about 1,200 teachers on staff, Samson said, about the number of students who attend the Aspen School District. The district has 17 elementary schools, four middle schools, four high schools and four schools that combine middle and high school classes.
“The personnel resources are greater here, though I assume the financial resources are greater in Aspen,” Samson said.
To do the job, Farrell, or whoever is chosen, will need to work with seven distinct communities that make up the district, Samson said. The St. Vrain board is also looking for someone who can sell voters on the need for new school bonds, guide the district through 4 percent annual growth and handle upcoming negotiations with the teachers’ union.
“It will be important that I surround myself with good people, because I’ll have to delegate more responsibility than I do here,” Farrell said.
Farrell said there are a number of accomplishments at Aspen that should help with his application at St. Vrain. Test scores are up since he arrived in 1985. The percentage of students participating in sports programs is unusually high in Aspen. Aspen High School is being expanded and updated with a $40 million voter-approved bond. Voters recently approved a mill levy increase. Aspen High School is part of the International Baccalaureate program.
“I’m especially proud of my efforts in drug prevention, like Project Graduation,” Farrell said. Project Graduation is an all-night, drug- and alcohol-free graduation party thrown every year that he helped initiate more than 14 years ago in Maine.
Samson said the St. Vrain board expects to announce its selection on May 22. Farrell said Longmont is the only place he’s applied, so far.
“I would stay here if I thought that this was the best place for me and, more importantly, that I was the best person for the district and its students,” Farrell said.
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