And Aspen School District’s next superintendent is?
The future of the Aspen School District poses enough questions to fill an exam paper, and there’s one the Board of Education plans to answer this month.
Either before or after the district’s students take off for spring break, scheduled March 23 to 30, the five-member board plans to announce its pick for a new superintendent, whose first day on the job is set for July 1.
Whatever the result, the BOE members, as well as a bevy of district stakeholders who have been involved in the process, have shown a willingness to do their homework. That work has included the BOE’s decision in October to hire Chicago firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates (HYA) to conduct a national search for the next superintendent.
Since December, the district and HYA have held focus group meetings both in person and online about what they want in a future superintendent. A leadership profile was created. An advisory group of students, teachers, parents and community members was formed. Candidates were given three questions demanding essay-length answers.
The application process, which closed Jan. 17, attracted what the district said were 24 “qualified” candidates, before the board winnowed that list to four the last week of February.
“We are so appreciative of the quantity and quality of feedback we received from the Aspen community,” Max McGee, president of HYA, told the board at its meeting Monday. “I think we had about 1,000 different comments from our focus group, our interviews, and our survey.
“And all of this data went into our leadership profile report, and what we used that for … was to recruit and screen candidates.
McGee noted of the HYA’s approximately 40 superintendent searches for far this year, “this was our most rigorous application. None of the other applications had three essay questions, yet we still received 60% more applicants than some comparable districts in Colorado.”
Colorado also is home to three of the finalists — Tammy Clementi, Tharyn Mulberry and Ann Schultz; the fourth one, David Baugh, lives in Pennsylvania.
Whomever is selected will be the superintendent of a school district compromised of 1,728 students this spring semester. That includes Aspen Community School in Woody Creek, as well as the preschool, elementary, middle and high schools, all of which share the campus off Maroon Creek Road.
Some of the more pressing issues at the district include the completion and implementation of a set of goals and vision for the future as expressed in the district’s strategic plan. Interim superintendent Tom Heald and staff got moving on that project last summer, following a climate and culture study that showed staff and faculty felt a need for greater clarity in decision-making and communications at the school district. Leadership and trust also were concerns.
The next superintendent will inherit the execution of that plan, and his or her presence will be needed on the frontline of a bond campaign this summer and fall, should the BOE decide to bring the issue to voters in the November elections. The bond measure would be intended for help funding capital improvement projects that could include relocating the school-bus barn; upgrading athletic, performing arts and academic facilities; and acquiring or building new teacher housing for a district that currently has 50 employee units.
Teacher pay remains a concern, along with aligning the curriculum grades kindergarten through 12.
Getting to know them
On Monday and Tuesday, after having cleared a process that included video interviews, reference checks and social media screenings, the four superintendent finalists visited Aspen and its school campus, where they met community members and discussed district issues important to them.
McGee, in his remarks to the board at Monday’s meeting, noted that “over the course of today and tomorrow, we will see who emerges as the best fit to serve the student, staff, parents and the greater Aspen community.”
Along with having to provide written answers to a series of essay questions, the results of which are posted on the district’s superintendent-search web page, the candidates publicly addressed how they would respond to a set of unenviable scenarios if they were the district’s leader. Those scenarios, called case studies, were given to them in advance of Tuesday’s public interviews at the high school seminar room, where the finalists gave their responses.
The questions weren’t served up to see if the candidates would answer them correctly. There were no right or wrong answers.
But the responses did yield insight into the finalist’s knowledge about and philosophy toward academics and learning, as well as their ability to think on their feet, answer follow-up questions posed to them by audience members and publicly engage the crowd.
One scenario addressed navigating the murky waters of a public relations crisis while at the same time addressing a potentially serious academic problem. In this instance, the finalists were asked how they would respond to a graduate who wrote a letter to the local newspaper decrying the lack of preparation Aspen High School gave her for college, and especially for her English major.
The second scenario posed Aspen District lacking student enrollment in its accelerated calculus courses, roughly half of what the national average is at high schools with similar demographics.
“The greatest things in life come about from friction,” Baugh said in a response to an audience members’s question about how he would respond to conflict or friction at the district. “These are our greatest growth opportunities. … I see friction in a district like this, … I think you have to listen and you have to learn.”
Mulberry said, “You cannot change anything about a school, unless you change the culture issues,” adding “if the teachers and staff do not buy into what you are asking them, it will not work.”
Mulberry has been Aspen High School’s principal for five years, and observers noted Tuesday that he has brought much-needed stability to the position.
“The community loves Tharyn,” said one audience member after Mulberry left his interview Tuesday. “He’s a great communicator, a great listener, honest, funny and supportive of the teachers. He understands our culture.”
But, she asked, “Does he have what it takes to raise the academic rigor at the other schools?”
Mulberry, who has a masters in educational leadership from the University of Colorado, has not been a superintendent, but his 25 years in public education included principal titles at other schools, more recently from 2009 to 2015 at Centennial High School in the Pueblo district.
“I love that man to death,” Clementi, who worked with Mulberry while they were in Pueblo, told the audience Tuesday. “And if he gets the job, you’re in good hands. He’s a good man loaded with integrity.”
Clementi, however, made her own case for why she is the most qualified candidate and the best fit. Currently a resident of Aurora, Clementi is national director of planning and analytics for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a publisher of textbooks and academic books.
Clementi, who had a Ph.D. in educational administration from the University of Denver, has been an educational consultant and held management roles at various school districts. That has included chief academic officer of Aurora Public Schools and Pueblo City Schools, while Clementi’s career started by teaching elementary school for 14 years, from 1987 to 2001, at the Colorado Springs School District.
Attendees at Tuesday’s interview said they appreciated her energy; Clementi wasn’t shy about cracking a selfless joke or ingratiating herself with the crowd. She also, however, showed a serious side.
“We need to take care of our people in the trenches who are doing the heaviest lifting, and that is our teachers,” she said.
Schultz, executive director of Cherry Creek Academy in Englewood, attended the BOE meeting earlier that day, and later Monday night would be on the phone with her daughter, a teacher in Nashville, until 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning. The town had been struck by violent tornadoes, but her daughter was OK, she told the crowd gathered at the assembly room for the Tuesday public interviews. Schultz comes from a family of educators and coaches, and she relayed her daughter’s biggest concern was her students.
Schultz, who earned a doctorate of philosophy and educational leadership from Marian University in Wisconsin, held school leadership roles in the Badger State for more than 25 years before moving to Colorado in 2018 for the Cherry Creek job.
“What I really like about Aspen is you just don’t learn within these four walls,” she said, in reference to the district’s outdoor education programming. “You learn outside these walls, as well.”
She emphasized academic excellence as well as cultivating the “whole child.”
Other candidates revealed their own personal details, drip by drip, at Tuesday’s interviews.
Baugh, who received an Ed.D. in educational leadership from Seton Hall, has a service dog — it wasn’t present during his presentation — and said he would bring it to work if he is hired. He also was named Pennsylvania’s superintendent of the year for 2020, and has a daughter who lives in the Vail area, which made the job that much more attractive to him, he said.
Clementi is a former state champion bodybuilder and has three dogs, and said she loves the outdoors.
Mulberry had children in the school district and emphasized his demonstrated commitment to the Aspen community make him the ideal superintendent.
“We worked hard to find four people, … so I hope that came through today,” BOE member Jonathan Nickell told the audience as Tuesday’s session drew to a close. “Whatever the final decision is, we’re looking for you guys to be on board and support that decision.”
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