Aspen Board of Education to hire mediator to explore issues raised by parents

The Aspen Board of Education will hire an outside party to evaluate the school district’s operations and approach toward leadership in the wake of mounting criticism leveled by a group of parents.

“I’ve heard some teachers tell me it’s a wonderful, open, collaborative place to work,” Chairwoman Sheila Wills said during the board’s meeting Monday. “And I know we’ve had other people represent other teachers saying something different. So, I think we need to take a step back.

“We need to take the emotion out of it and look at it in a logical, coherent way. And I think we need to bring in an expert. I think we need to have someone who understands educational/organizational climate and structure.”

Wills’ comments came after she and her four fellow board members heard two hours of statements, both pro and con, regarding the Aspen School District’s executive culture, hiring practices and policymaking.

The meeting was held in the boardroom where an overflow crowd poured into the hallway, and amplified the growing rift between supporters and foes of the district administration.

Critics have pinned few if any of the district’s alleged issues on its principals or teachers’ job performances. Instead, a common sentiment among those seeking change regards the leadership style of Superintendent John Maloy, as well some of the executive team members in the administrative office. That style, critics of the school district contend, has spawned a culture where teachers lack confidence that the administration has their backs when they speak up — and when they do, their concerns are handled unprofessionally while they subject themselves to such repercussive measures as termination.

Others, however, have maintained things are moving along well at the school district despite the backdrop of scathing rhetoric from the recently formed Aspen Parents Action Committee. Critics of the committee said the outspoken parents have failed to offer solutions to the alleged problems and are targeting Maloy for personal reasons.

Hiring a mediator will be discussed in more detail at the board’s next meeting Oct. 15, Wills said.

The timing is near the same time the board will begin reviewing Maloy’s annual job performance later this month. Maloy, who was promoted from assistant superintendent to superintendent in March 2010, has a three-year rolling contract with the district. His current agreement keeps him through June 30, 2020.

The four other board members, all of whom were elected by voters within the school district, agreed with Wills’ proposal, which includes identifying five potential mediators and winnowing that down to three finalists.

“I think that’s a good idea,” board member Susan Marolt said. “I think it’s important for us as a community to determine what kind of climate and culture we actually want before we hire someone to tell us how to do that. … I think that’s important for us to look at as a board and how we hear from our community and how we would like that to happen and how our community would like that to happen.”

Before the board addressed enlisting a mediator, both Maloy and his daughter, Megan Maloy, who is the school district’s psychologist, defended their job performances. Megan Maloy objected to the cries of nepotism and was backed by employees in her department.

“(The Aspen parents group) have said they want collaboration, yet they have already made demands and used strong-arm tactics and have offered no solution other than firing the superintendent,” she said.

The superintendent said the claims of a culture of fear at the schools “troubles me greatly. In that vein, I’m working with the Aspen Education Association (which represents faculty and staff) to find out what their members are feeling.”

In a letter to the Board of Education, the Aspen Education Association called for a “comprehensive review of administration and recent concerns expressed by the public and teachers. In addition to existing procedures, we feel that performance reviews, 360 reviews, and/or an independent review, conducted by a neutral third party, would be beneficial.”

The letter also asked the board to “examine carefully the information that AEA provides regarding the concerns of its members,” though it did not disclose those concerns.

Board member Dwayne Romero, who will take the role as board chairman in November, said leadership sets the tone for the school district, and that cannot be confused with day-to-day job duties.

“There is a fundamental difference between management and administration, and leadership,” he said. “Let me say that again: There is a fundamental difference between understanding how to achieve performance, how to achieve accomplishment, how to abide by regulations, how to stay on task, how to stay on schedule. Those are administrative and managerial duties.

“There’s a whole different realm being able to create a trusting environment, setting a tone where there’s confidence and there’s mutual respect, where there’s openness and humility.”

Issues within the district have been simmering for years and were brought forward in the mid-2010s by the District Accountability Committee, but its concerns were not addressed by the Board of Education, parents said.

But after newspaper reports that Maloy and Wills were supporting Elizabeth Hodges, the school district’s human resources director since the 2016-17 academic year, the Aspen Parent Action Committee formed in protest in September. Hodges was disbarred in April from practicing law in Missouri and is serving probation for her misdemeanor conviction related to an estate-planning case.

Hodges remains employed by the district, which has 250 to 265 employees.

“Why is our school board and superintendent so surprisingly supportive, to their own detriment, of Elizabeth Hodges?” asked parent Bradley Schlosser. “And why is she not on unpaid leave until more details of what she did proves to not be a potential liability to the district?”