As parents mobilize, Aspen School District digs in | AspenTimes.com

As parents mobilize, Aspen School District digs in

The Aspen School District is making a public-relations push as an internal probe into its director of human resources nears an end and a parents group stays trained on forcing out the superintendent.

On Monday, the district's Human Resources department, headed by Elizabeth Hodges, emailed district employees to debut a newsletter called "Staff Insider."

"This newsletter is a publication of the Human Resources Office but is a collaboration of many individuals and hopefully you," the newsletter reads. "My door is always open if you want to stop by, ask a question or just to say hello."

Staff Insider included a piece by Kathy and Warren Klug, which also appeared in The Aspen Times on Tuesday. The guest commentary defended the school district and Superintendent Dr. John Maloy. It also referred to the recently formed Aspen Parents Action Committee as an "angry action" group bent on having the district's highest-ranking executive fired. Kathy Klug, while retired as the high school's head of college counseling, remains on board part-time with the district as an adviser.

Maloy was promoted from assistant superintendent to superintendent in March 2010. He has a three-year rolling contract with the district, with his current agreement through June 30, 2020. The contract is reviewed and subject to a one-year extension on an annual basis.

The board will begin talks about Maloy's annual job performance in October and will discuss that performance with him in November or December, the superintendent said in an email sent Thursday to The Aspen Times.

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"A date for the review has not been established at this time," he wrote.

At the same time Maloy's supporters are digging in their heels, a parents group continues to regularly meet and plan its next course of action. They plan to speak during the open-comments portion of the Board of Education's next meeting, which is set for 8 a.m. Monday.

Holding its first public meeting Tuesday at the Pitkin County Library with a gathering of about 25 to 30 individuals, members of the Aspen Parents Action Committee again presented their reasons for why the school district is not meeting the standards they say they expect.

Highlighting their grievances are data showing the high school has slipped from third to 20th since 2010 in the Colorado Department of Education's ratings. The elementary school, once ranked 61st, now is 344th. They also have alleged nepotism based on Maloy's daughter, who works as the school district counselor, as well as Hodges' wife, who was hired to work this academic year in the special-education department.

The organization, which has an online petition drive underway to remove Maloy from his seat, also took issue with how critics have characterized them as an unhinged group fueled by a lynch-mob mentality.

"If anybody suggests there's a bunch of crazy people involved in this group and they're all off the radical boat, there is not personal vendetta against anybody," parent Bill Carlson said at the meeting. "We are trying to identify if there really are problems here and what's the best way to address them."

Adam Frisch, who said he was speaking as a parent and not in his role as a member of the Aspen City Council — which has no say over school district issues or policies — recommended the group tone down the rhetoric. He said the community would be best served with an unbiased moderator hearing all sides of the arguments.

"I do think if a neutral person comes in, they will see deficiencies that are structural deficiencies," said Frisch, adding that if Maloy's contract is not renewed, a potential future superintendent might be repelled by the recent events and heated dialogue.

Not all parents agreed.

Dan Goldman, repeating what other parents have said, argued that teachers are afraid to speak out and the committee "can't swallow our tongues."

Parent Lynne Seeman said, "If there was a place for this all to play out in a constructive way, we would do it. I don't have an issue with John (Maloy) as a person. But I do have an issue with the way the district is being led."

The parents said they are speaking out because the district lacks a mechanism for teachers to publicly express their concerns out of a fear of retaliation. Teachers are part of the Aspen Education Association, the representative voice for faculty and staff.

Mark Munger, president of Aspen Education Association, and teacher representative Evan O'Branovic said Friday the association will make a statement at Monday's board meeting.

"It will be about a wide range of topics, not just what's been going on here the last few weeks," Munger said.

O'Branovic said, "We want to hopefully address the concerns that the staff has and let that be known. We want to meet with the board and administration first and share that information so that the process can run smoothly."

The association has yet to take a stated position on the current matters.

Maloy is not taking their concerns seriously, parents said, because he has yet to address them. At the Board of Education's Sept. 15 meeting, parents levied blistering criticism at Maloy and the district. Maloy did not respond to them at the time.

"I am always willing to listen to concerns, constructive criticism and suggestions for improving our schools. Sometimes, especially when there is significant emotion and anger, it is best to just listen," Maloy wrote in his email to The Times.

"In order to have a conversation both sides have to be willing to be open to hearing what the other side has to say. I do not believe a board meeting and the newspaper are the best ways to work through the concerns of the parent group. The Board of Education suggested that separate work sessions rather than board meetings with previously scheduled agendas and ongoing work of the schools that need to be addressed may be a better venue for working collaboratively to address the parents' concerns."

Maloy also said parents are not getting the full picture of the district as evidenced by their missing out on the positive news it has produced lately. He cited the last Board of Education meeting, when parents stated their positions but departed the board room after they were done speaking.

"Unfortunately the parent committee members and the newspaper representative left the meeting immediately following their presentations," he said. "They were not present to hear the reports from our principals, directors of special education and curriculum, students, or the teachers' association regarding the work that is taking place in our schools."

Assistant Superintendent Dr. Tom Heald, according to Maloy, was not allowed to attend the parent group's first meeting, Sept. 11, which was held at a private residence. The media also was banned. Maloy also said at least two parents have been unreceptive to his attempts to meet them.

"I've reached out to two members of the parent group," Maloy said. "One declined to meet and I have not heard back from the other member."

The group's allegations of a "toxic" environment at the Aspen campus is unfounded, Maloy said.

"This is an inaccurate characterization of our schools and only serves to lower the morale of all in the district and the community," he said. "All of our schools have received the highest rating from the Colorado Department of Education and the Aspen School District has been 'Accredited with Distinction.'

"Accomplishing this is the result of board and administrative leadership, excellent teachers and staff, strong curriculum and instruction, student and parent engagement and a supportive community. Numbers and data are just that and are open to interpretation. Comparing a group of students' scores one year to a different group the next is not comparing apples to apples. Our district's student population is not the same as it was five or 10 years ago and we continually work to identify and address the opportunities and challenges of our changing student population."

The superintendent went on to say, "There are smiles and laughter in the schools and learning is occurring daily. Despite our differences of opinion, the parent group and the school district do have a common desire for continuous improvement in student achievement and creating a school climate that supports our teachers, support staff, students and parents. I truly hope that we can work collaboratively to that end."

When asked if the Aspen Education Association agrees with the sentiment expressed by the parents group, Munger responded: "The association feels that we are, and it's our responsibility to be, a voice for our members. And right now, we are about 75 percent of that (certified teachers and staff). We feel like we have good communication with the staff and we feel we have a good handle. It's always a challenge to find where people are, but that's what we're trying to do."

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

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