For six Aspen school board candidates, it’s all about the kids

Board of Education candidate forum focuses on consensus, climate, culture and the classroom

The Board of Education candidates answer pop quiz questions on stage at the Aspen District Theatre in Aspen Elementary School during the candidate forum on Thursday, October 14, 2021. Candidates had to answer pop questions such as the superintendent’s salary, how many football games the AHS team had won this season, and budgets. After introductions and pop questions, the candidates went on to answer specific questions for their opinions on how to improve the school district. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The six candidates vying for three seats on the Aspen School District Board of Education have a lot they can agree on. First and foremost: It’s all about the kids, each and every one of them.

But a sentence doesn’t fill much of a 90-minute forum like the one that took place Thursday night at the District Theater, where incumbent Susan Zimet and five prospective school board first-timers — Lawrence Butler, John Galambos, Christa Gieszl, Stacey Weiss and Anna Zane — took the stage to field questions about subjects like pandemic learning, mental health, climate and culture, equity and classroom dynamics.

Those topics weren’t treated as islands by the candidates, who identified the ways in which the pandemic impacted mental health (negatively is the gist) and considered how mental health, climate and culture as well as equity can influence classroom dynamics (candidates all hope for positivity).

Butler and Zane placed major emphasis on the importance of in-person learning from an educational standpoint.

Learning via computers and tablets was a “necessary evil” when schools went virtual last year, Butler said, but he’d like to see less reliance on devices especially now that students are back in the classroom. Zane, too, would like to see less screen time and more tactile learning, she said.

Technology doesn’t bode well for students struggling with mental health either, especially as a platform for cyberbullying, Galambos noted.

“The internet, Instagram, Facebook are really terrible for middle schoolers, and if you’re a parent I would monitor carefully what’s going on. … Middle school is hard enough,” he said.

While the district has extensive policies about bullying on campus and at school-sanctioned events and does have some messaging and guidance on cyberbullying, monitoring and discipline get much trickier when hate takes place online but can be accessed at school. Galambos and Zane both said that while the district can help address the issue through education, it’s also the responsibility of parents to teach and enforce good digital citizenship.

WATCH: Aspen Board of Education candidate forum

“We have to constantly be on our kids and remind kids that growing up is hard, and you have to treat everybody with dignity and respect,” Zane said.

That idea of dignity and respect speaks to mental health’s role as a top-of-mind topic among the school board slate. Creating an environment in which all students feel heard and listened to is part of the equation but so are resources like counselors and intervention strategies.

“We can do more, and we will do more, and we should do more, and we need to do more,” Zimet said. “I think, sadly, for some time, this valley has been afflicted with higher rates of anxiety, depression and suicide than other communities, and these mental health conditions, as we all know, have been only been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic. This is a critical situation.”

Six candidates are vying for three open seats on the Aspen School District Board of Education in 2021 (clockwise from top left): Lawrence Butler, John Galambos, Christa Gieszl, Stacey Weiss, Susan Zimet and Anna Zane.

It ties into the culture and climate of the schools, too, Gieszl said. She envisioned a “proactive” response rather than a “reactive” one that focuses on “finding things before they happen.”

“A huge component of this … is the community response, making the culture and climate of the school community inclusive, accessible to everybody, as well as our larger community exemplifying these values,” she said.

And the same goes for the classrooms, because “students need to be mentally healthy to learn,” Weiss said.

“It occurs to me that when we’ve been talking about climate and culture — and we generally refer to that as being the climate and culture of the adult part of the community — but we need to consider the climate and culture for our students, and how we built a community in the school,” Weiss said.

That’s a question Galambos was considering, too.

“What kind of community do we want to be? It’s not about the issues, it’s who we are,” said Galambos, who has mostly focused on stability and bridge-building rather than specific hot-button topics that the district needs to address.

He’s not the only one campaigning on consensus: nearly every candidate used the word to describe their ethos behind finding balance in the boardroom.

But other candidates do see the campaign as an issue-based one — especially so for Butler, who considers himself an “outspoken” candidate.

“I do feel very strongly about the hot button issues, and I do feel that whether you like it or not, they’re part of the school,” Butler said. “They’re part of how we figure out the curriculum, and they’re part of everyday life and can’t be ignored.”

There’s one more thing all the candidates are on the same page about: it sure feels good to have such a robust, enthusiastic slate of candidates for three seats on the board.

“The fact that we have six candidates running for three seats speaks well about the vitality of democracy in Aspen, and it points to the high regard that our community has for its schools, and that’s a really wonderful thing,” Weiss said. “It’s very encouraging. It makes me feel very optimistic about our future and our kids.”

Candidate Gradebook

Candidates warmed up with a pop quiz to test their knowledge on a bit of school district trivia. Questions were selected randomly from a hat; some got a bit closer to the mark than others.

The total amount of the bond that funds facilities updates and housing is $114 million. Anna Zane answered all the right digits but in the wrong order when she guessed $141 million.

There are 1,636 students enrolled in Aspen School District schools as of the Oct. 1 headcount this year. Stacey Weiss answered 1,645, which is pretty close; the number fluctuates throughout the school year, and the student funded enrollment stat quoted during budget presentations earlier this year was 1,645.

The Aspen Community School is located in Woody Creek. Susan Zimet was spot-on with her answer.

Superintendent David Baugh makes $203,940. John Galambos wasn’t wrong when he said “six figures,” but he didn’t have the exact number on hand.

Aspen High School’s football team has won two games so far this season. Christa Giezl answered correctly; she attended those games, she noted.

Aspen School District’s budget for the 2021-22 school year is about $169 million — a larger-than-usual amount because of capital projects funded by the bond. Lawrence Butler jokingly asked if he could answer a question on pop music instead before guessing $70 million, which would have been pretty close if he had to answer the question last year; the 2020-21 budget was in the $66 million ballpark.