For Jewish parents, schedule improves but issues remain
December 14, 2015
Progress has been made in smoothing the Aspen Jewish community's ruffled feathers after comments by a school board member last month offended many.
However, a meeting of the Aspen School District's Board of Education on Monday highlighted renewed concerns that board members continue to be tone-deaf when it comes to Jewish students and parents, as well as uncommunicative and hard to approach in general.
"We realize that it wasn't ill will toward the Jewish community," said Katy Frisch, a parent and member of that community who has organized meetings on the subject with district officials and board members. "It's just that people didn't know how the high holidays work."
But Meredith Carroll – another parent and an Aspen Times columnist – said she was "deeply insulted" by an email sent out by school board members Friday announcing Monday's meeting about the Jewish issue.
"It was very condescending," Carroll said. "It mischaracterized the tenor with which we've stepped forward. It made it sound like an angry lynch mob was going to show up.
"That kind of tone is not doing anything for having us feel like we're being heard."
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School Board member Bob Glah supported Carroll's remarks.
"I am in agreement with you," Glah said. "I was a little put off by the tone as well."
'high value' on children's needs
Glah said he received a copy of the email about three hours before it was sent out but was traveling and couldn't respond. He apologized for not speaking up to change it, and questioned why it had to be sent out so quickly.
"At least you should wait until I acknowledge I've received it," Glah told fellow board members.
The email, titled "Board of Education Public Board Meeting Protocol," begins by saying that the board "places a high value" on the needs of the district's children and the opinions of their parents. It then talks about the board's twice-monthly meetings, the only time members have to address "broad, deep and often complex" issues and make "thoughtful considered decisions."
Next it talks about public comments at those meetings, and the difficulty board members have in addressing those comments "without the opportunity for thoughtful consideration of the needs of all the children in the district." Board members listen to the comments but do not comment on them until a later meeting, it says.
The last paragraph announces that Monday's meeting will address the concerns about scheduling school activities and events during Jewish holidays made at the Nov. 16 meeting.
Board members Sandra Peirce, Sheila Wills and Susan Marolt produced the email, said Aspen Superintendent John Maloy. Marolt was not present Monday because she is serving jury duty.
Peirce said Monday that the email was an attempt to explain the public comment process, and that they felt the community needed to hear from the board.
"I apologize it felt condescending," she said. "It wasn't meant to be."
The controversy began in early November after a group of Jewish parents, irked that experiential education programs were scheduled during Jewish high holidays this year, asked for a meeting with district officials.
At that meeting, Wills told parents, "I don't think it's a bad thing upon occasion to be raised this way – to look at your child and say, 'You know what, sometimes I think you have to make a sacrifice for your faith.' … So maybe on those days when those kids do have to do a makeup test, maybe that's how you teach them that."
And, just like that, a grievance became a controversy.
Staying committed to the community
Frisch told board members on Monday that Jewish students have been singled out in front of classmates for missing important events, elementary school kids have missed picture day and many have had to make hard choices concerning the district's vaunted experiential education programs.
However, she said the last few weeks have produced positive meetings at each of the three schools, and that minor conflicts involving tests and homework can be dealt with at the school level. In addition, scheduling issues with the experiential or outdoor education programs "should be conflict-free until the 2018 school year," Frisch said.
Conflicts with sports schedules can be worked out if parents and district officials resolve them ahead of time, she said. Finally, Frisch and district officials have worked to establish liason teachers to communicate with Jewish parents, she said.
Glah said he thinks it's been challenging for the board during the last five or six years to "stay committed to the whole of the community."
"I think we've been behind the curve in employing inclusiveness strategies" and appropriate communication, he said. "I encourage this district and all of us on the board to not be afraid of multiple opinions and voices on how to operate this district.
"It's been too controlled in the past."
Alyssa Shenk, a parent and member of the Snowmass Village Town Council, told board members she thinks they are not approachable and don't communicate well. She encouraged them to meet with small groups of parents and students to be able to better take the community's pulse.
Shenk also agreed with Carroll, about Friday's email, saying three people asked her if she'd read it before she had a chance to see it.
"It seems like one step forward and two steps back," Shenk said.
For her part, Wills apologized for her "misstep" and said she is a supporter of inclusiveness. However, when asked during a meeting break if she thought the board was approachable and communicated well, Wills declined to comment and referred a reporter to Marolt, the board president, for comment.
"It needs to be all about the kids," Wills said. "I know what's in my heart."
Asked the same question, Peirce said, "Clearly there's a perception that we're not (approachable)."