Aspen school board candidates try to crack the communications code
If the upcoming November elections seem buried in the shadow of next year’s state and federal races, perhaps a drive down Cemetery Lane is in order.
These days the neighborhood is bustling with yard signs touting candidates for the Aspen School District’s Board of Education, a five-member committee with two open positions in play during the Nov. 5 elections.
Most of the signs’ attention are devoted to board hopefuls John Galambos and Jonathan Nickell.
Combined, they account for one-third of the six candidates — the others are Katy Frisch, Patsy Kurkulis, Jim Pomeroy and Bettina Slusar — in a race highlighting the same concerns that routinely rise in local municipal and county elections: leadership, housing, budget constraints, staff pay and morale, infrastructure, planning and communications.
The campaigns have focused on some of the district’s most pressing matters, such as hiring a new superintendent, a decision that will ultimately rest with the next board.
Over the course of three public forums held last week, the candidates reflected on events of the 2018-19 school year that prompted them, at least in part, to run for the Board of Education.
An emerging theme: communications and transparency. Voters can expect to hear those two buzzwords repeatedly during most any election season. And it’s been no different in the BOE race, but candidates also have shared their personal frustrations — not just what they’re hearing through the parent rumor mill — over trying to get district information or being effective members of volunteer groups that serve as advisory boards to the BOE.
At Wednesday’s forum put on by Aspen Education Foundation, for instance, Frisch, responding to a question about the dormancy of the district’s Financial Advisory Board, said her efforts to dig into the schools’ finances were hamstrung by the prior administration — chiefly its CFO and superintendent. Frisch has been on the advisory board since 2009, but she conceded her role has been insignificant because of what essentially has become a nonexistent board.
“The last two years it has basically been ineffective and hasn’t met,” she said. “I planned to speak positive tonight, but I have to say, the last administration, the CFO and superintendent, basically shut it down.”
Then finance director Kate Fuentes was unresponsive to Frisch’s emails, and Frisch said “there was no where to go” when it came to getting information for the advisory board.
Getting basic data has posed unreasonable challenges, some candidates alleged.
For Nickell, “the only way I was able” to get information,” he said at Wednesday’s AEF forum, was to file Freedom of Information Act requests with the district.
“And even then, the last time I made data requests, they threw up their hands,” Nickell said.
On that occasion, Nickell, a former member of the District Accountability Commmittee, was seeking district data to verify similar information he’d received from the Colorado Department of Education, he said.
Communications and access to information, while having improved this year, “hasn’t completely gone away,” Slusar said at Wednesday’s forum, noting for the past month she hasn’t been able to get data from the district on the college graduation rate for graduates of Aspen High.
“I think we’re all in agreement that this has been a problem that needs to change if we’re going to have any movement at all,” Slusar said. “It can’t just be the box.”
Slusar and Galambos, on several instances last week, said the board should look beyond its official meetings to communicate with the public. Board meetings, due to their limitations, aren’t the ideal forum for candid talk about touchy or controversial issues, they said.
That’s essentially how it went down during the fall months of 2018, when publicity surrounding the criminal background of the district’s human resources director touched off a different kind of campaign — this one aimed at dismantling Superintendent John Maloy from his post.
Formed was the Aspen Parent Action Committee, which used the HR director’s background as a springboard to attack the superintendent on a bevy of other issues at the school district for which they held Maloy responsible.
During the public remarks portion of several BOE meetings, parents, including Kurkulis and Slusar, lit into the board and said Maloy’s management style permeated a culture of fear and distrust among teachers and staff, which trickled into the classrooms, where they said academic performance was not up to snuff. Examples cited included the high school’s falling from third to 20th since 2010 in the Colorado Department of Education’s ratings.
With the parents committee on one side, Maloy’s supporters also galvanized, saying the superintendent’s shortcomings were exaggerated while his successes were played down.
When all was said and done last school year, Maloy ended up cutting ties with the district, which also had to find a new CFO and HR director. The district has an opening for superintendent, while Tom Heald has agreed to take the helm for the 2019-20 year.
The district named Molly Ownes its new HR director earlier this year, and Linda Warhoe is now the district’s chief financial officer after Fuentes resigned in March with no explanation given by the district.
With three children who graduated from Aspen public schools, Galambos said they enjoyed academic experiences not afforded in other communities.
“I think we are doing about 90 percent of things correctly,” Galambos said. “I think there’s 10 percent things that need work and we can identify those and work together to solve those problems.”
But he also agreed that behind the scenes, something has been amiss.
“Should the board have an open quarterly house?” Galambos asked. “Is it the kind of thing that happens in a public hearing, in a public board meeting, or should we have an open house and say, ‘Guys, this week we’re going to talk about our finances,’ and then bring in the people we need?”
During the AEF forum, held on the school campus, Pomeroy noted how the venue reflected the candidates’ frustrations.
“It’s very ironic that we’re in the Black Box Theater,” Pomeroy said, “when you think about where we are, and we look behind this curtain and we have no idea what’s happening.”
The result is a mill of rumors and no answers, said Pomeroy, who sits on the District Accountability Committee.
“That’s what happens when we don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “And we fill in the void of information.”
“There are a lot of questions but there hasn’t been transparency,” Kurkulis said, “so we don’t have any answers.”
Five of the board candidates said change needed to happen at the top of the School District this year, starting with Maloy. Galambos was the lone one out, but said his thinking has since shifted.
“At the time I would have supported Maloy, at the time,” Galambos said. “It’s been really good for me to dive into this stuff. My experiences with him personally and as a superintendent, every experience was positive. I started seeing this rift between the board and Maloy awhile ago … but I wasn’t paying attention the way I should have. And at the time, I would have supported him, back then. And I wrote an email to the board saying ‘let’s be careful here.’”
Galambos added board members “weren’t listening to people talking and talking for years about this,” so it should shoulder some of the blame for the community division over Maloy.
Yet he also suggested the public comments at board meetings regarding Maloy were unnecessarily divisive.
“I don’t like how the process went down,” he said. “I did not like the tone in the board meetings. I think we need to really repair the tone in our community. I think there are a lot of people who decided to take sides and there was a lot of abuse back and forth for the side that you took, and I think there’s a lot of healing that has to occur here.”
Galambos called for a “culture of respect, and we need to change our communications. And what I really think we need to do is start listening. I don’t think anybody was listening to anybody last year. I think everybody was hackles up, do it. I believe the change could have happened in a little different way.”
Frisch agreed, and said “the process is now going to make it fairly challenging to hire a new superintendent, because any good candidate is going to read the newspapers, so we have an extra challenge in how we go about in finding the next person, which we will overcome, but it will take more salesmanship.”
Pomeroy said, “Obviously (Maloy) had lost the trust of the community and the school community, the general community. But the bigger picture isn’t him. The bigger picture was that he was a symptom … mostly with transparency. If he had been better at communicating, maybe, who knows? But with the current systems in place, he was an inevitable conclusion.”
The Aspen schools community, Slusar said, also needs to look at itself in the mirror sometimes, bruises and all.
“Everything has to be good all the time,” she said. “We can’t have negative information. … And sometimes, realistically, it’s just not positive.”
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