Aspen Board of Education taps Denver firm to examine climate, culture | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Board of Education taps Denver firm to examine climate, culture

Members of the Board of Education voted unanimously Monday to hire a Denver consulting firm to examine the issues of culture and climate at the Aspen School District.

In a 4-0 vote during its regular meeting, the board agreed to hire Wilson Foxen Inc., in part because its services to the district were offered at a cost lower than the other finalist's bid, and its Denver location puts it in close proximity to Aspen.

Board Vice President Susan Marolt said work by the neutral firm will allow the school district "to move forward in a positive way."

The vote, which was conducted while the board's fifth member, Sandra Peirce, was out sick, almost was not unanimous. Board member Susan Zimet said she had considered voting against an outside firm handling what could be regarded as a board duty.

"I've had a lot of feedback that the five us have been elected, and why are we spending so much money on doing something the five of us were elected to do?" she said. "That's the feedback I've received."

Yet Zimet said she changed her mind after Marolt explained the outside party's findings and monitoring will help put the district on a better path toward the future.

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"I feel that no matter who is sitting in (the board members') chairs, we need to have a system moving forward measuring how we're doing," Marolt said.

The school board's decision comes in the wake of public criticism and allegations about teacher turnover, slipping staff morale and academic performances at the school district, and an unbecoming leadership tone set by Superintendent John Maloy.

In October, the board decided not to extend Maloy's contract past its expiration date of June 30, 2021.

Another matter of concern has been over the school's human resources director, Elizabeth Hodges, who is on probation in Missouri for a misdemeanor criminal conviction for her estate planning work. Hodges, who once practiced law but not for Aspen schools, also was disbarred in April by the state of Missouri because of her professional misconduct.

Hodges remains an employee at the school district; her name and title were on her office door as of Monday, and it appears on the district's website staff directory and human resources page. She was, however, absent for part of the district's open-enrollment proceedings last week, according to multiple sources close to the district.

The district, whose legal counsel has been reviewing Hodges' past in a renewed background check that began in September, did not provide any updates about her employment status at Monday's meeting. Board President Dwayne Romero also declined comment when asked about her status after the meeting, and after business hours Friday, Maloy said in an email that "there is no additional information to provide as it relates to Ms. Hodges. The district is still waiting on legal counsel's final review."

Meanwhile, Wilson Foxen will begin its work at the district starting in January, Marolt said.

In a proposal made to the school district, Liz Wilson, a name partner with Wilson Foxen, said the first phase of the process will include one-on-one, in-person interviews with staff members, principals, the superintendent and members of the Aspen Parent Action Committee, a group that formed earlier in the fall school semester because of its concerns about school district operations. Those interviews — "supplemented by a targeted, customized survey," the proposal says — will take place over two to three days.

"This is likely to uncover specifics regarding bullying and intimidation, if they exist to the extent that has been described," Fox wrote in the proposal, which also notes her firm will review previous employment survey data and "what changes were made, and how things have improved or not."

The APAC has contended that some teachers have been timid about speaking out about the district's operation out of fear of reprisal. Another camp, however, has argued the parents are misguided and angry.

Wilson's proposal also left open the option of not having the interviews and instead holding focus groups, but the "risk would be that people might hide in the group, or fall into groupthink."

The first phase would cost the district between $10,000 and $12,000 for Wilson Foxen's services and does not include travel expenses.

The second phase, which Wilson calls the "deeper dive," is contingent on what the initial phase reveals.

"If, or where, serious problems are uncovered, you'll probably want a deeper dive, such as interviews and/or focus groups at specific schools, for specific functions, levels, etc," Wilson wrote. "You may want some training, some interventions among groups or individuals, some targeted leadership development, a task force, etc. We won't know until we get there. The recommendations are part of the Phase 1 deliverables, so you wouldn't be making any commitments to Phase 2 until we get there."

Another document from Wilson Foxen to school board members Marolt and Peirce asked about the 2018 data from the Teaching and Learning Conditions in Colorado, formerly known as TELL. Among the survey's 2018 findings were that 54 percent of the district's staff members "feel comfortable raising important issues with school leaders," 56 percent of "school staff show respect for each other," and 37 percent of teachers "have an adequate level of influence on important school decisions."

The firm also asked if some of the school district's issues are influenced by any of its principals.

"Several of the principals are new to ASD and/or new to principal-level positions," Wilson Foxen noted. "Is change management influencing the negative perceptions of client and culture? The principals and the superintendent are male, except for Emily Anderson at The Cottage (the school district's preschool). Is that a factor? There are norms in stereotypical male and female behavior."

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

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