Aspen school board questions part 2: Finding the next superintendent
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of four questions posed to candidates for two openings on the Aspen School District Board of Education. The candidates’ next answers will appear in the Oct. 21 and 28 editions — both Mondays — of The Aspen Times. Election Day is Nov. 5, while ballots go out this week.
Today’s question: The Board of Education will play an important role in the hiring of the Aspen School District’s next superintendent. Identify the district’s three most critical issues the next superintendent will face, and how you will support the superintendent in addressing those issues.
My top priority, and our district’s, is to hire and onboard a new superintendent. Good leadership is imperative. I believe the three critical issues during his or her first months are strategic planning, cultural change and academic improvements.
We need a vision and a strategic plan for our district. The groundwork for a new strategic plan has begun, but until we have new leadership in place it will be difficult to complete and to implement a new plan. We have many great programs in our schools to build on, and ones that are unmatched in social-emotional growth, such as Outdoor Education. We need to rise to the challenges of a changing world to prepare our children for the future, and to move toward new education methods, while still teaching mastery of fundamental skills.
Our cultural climate is also a top priority. I hear too many stories of teachers scared of the repercussions of their actions, of ineffective communication with parents, and of children failing to reach their academic goals. We seem fearful to address any lapses in performance and downplay input from parent and teacher committees. Whatever your assessment of the current culture, until each child is being taught to his or her ability in a safe and welcoming environment, until teachers are excited about the prospects of teaching every day, and until we can work together to create a growth culture, we can do better.
We have failures that require immediate attention. Third-grade reading test scores last year were dismal. Only 41% of our third-graders are reading at or above grade level, per CMAS and STAR assessments. This appalling result necessitates immediate action on behalf of our students. It appears to be a systematic problem, one that cannot be attributed to an individual teacher or methodology. We need a transparent and supportive all-hands-on-deck approach, bringing together our entire community to solve this problem.
The right fit superintendent will be able to accomplish these goals. By electing board members who have experience creating and implementing strategic plans, who can bring together the financial and operational pieces to support the educational pieces and work together transparently with passion to make it all happen in a community appropriate manner, we will succeed — I am sure of it. I believe I can work with the superintendent and board to accomplish this, and I hope I have the opportunity to help.
Before answering this question regarding the next superintendent, I need to ask our community this: What type of board are we going to be? It’s clear that the board has not been on the same page for quite some time. Combined with all the issues with the past superintendent (the board’s only employee), it is clear that ASD has work to do. What separates me from other candidates is my trust in board governance. This framework is very important. At its core, it defines roles and protects students, teachers and staff. Some people have this image of the school board as five lofty people that control every aspect of district life with strong personalities that “get results.” We are not supposed to function like that. This board is an elected entity, performing their duties transparently. We can disagree, but we need to work together towards common goals.
To be clear, there is change needed within our governance model. For example, how we communicate and interact with staff needs an overhaul. This should be solved as a unified board within the governance framework.
How the board and superintendent work together will determine the success of our schools for years to come. I promise to bring a civil, positive, problem-solving attitude to the board. We can be better together.
The board and superintendent need to address these three issues:
Communication: The superintendent must excel at communication. They need to provide clear direction to administrators and principals on the board’s policy goals and allow staff to execute these goals. They need to communicate back to the board as to how these goals are succeeding or not succeeding. The superintendent needs to communicate that we are one district with several schools unified in mission; breaking down the silos; especially in the area of curriculum. Most importantly the superintendent has to communicate a culture of respect. ASD needs healing from recent trauma.
Strategic vision: The district’s strategic vision process is a good start. The superintendent needs to lead this effort and provide vision for the future.
Housing, buildings and community: We need housing. We need to future-proof our buildings through renovation and maintenance. We must tap Aspen’s resources and talent and develop public/private partnerships to solve problems and create opportunities.
The board and the next superintendent need to be a cohesive team working toward excellence. It won’t be easy but we are better together.
For me the three most critical issues are gaining the trust of the school and the community, budgetary priorities, and identifying best hiring practices and procedures.
Currently there is a palpable void of leadership and trust, and that needs to change. The incoming superintendent will need to gain the trust of our school community, teachers, administrators, parents and students. Although this may take time and effort, it can be achieved. Criteria for success will include careful vetting for the hiring of a superintendent, establishing specific and achievable goals, and placing effective oversight on the entire process.
Regarding budgetary practices, I would like to see a list of priorities and how these priorities do or do not align with the budget. I would like to also address specific areas of friction and concern that have plagued our schools and identify how best to address these shortcomings. I have worked on budgets in the past and know how to navigate these issues to achieve success. Budgets are threefold — numbers, addressing priorities and managing individual ambitions for the greater good.
Lastly, I would like to review the human resource department, specifically hiring and firing procedures and practices. With a detailed review of this department I believe it is possible that the Aspen School District could improve upon its decision-making skill sets and greatly reduce erroneous decisions. This too could add to the improvement of all our dedicated staff and enhance the culture from within.
The most important responsibility of the Board of Education is selecting the right leader for our schools, the superintendent. I have previously served on a school board leadership selection committee and in my professional capacity as CFO I evaluate and select leaders to develop the organization. That experience will be invaluable in selecting the best candidate for Aspen.
First, the new superintendent will need to begin to build a culture of trust and collaboration by working with the teachers, staff, BOE and the community to create an aspirational vision for the Aspen School District taking advantage of our unique characteristics and potential to become one of the best districts in the country. This can be accomplished via the strategic planning process. I have served on a school board strategic planning committee and have led and participated in multiple strategic planning processes in my professional career.
Second, the new leader will need to ensure that he/she has the talent and resources to accomplish the vision. There are nine key leadership roles, many of which are new to their positions or vacant, including CFO, HR, curriculum director and AMS principal. The superintendent will need to work with the group to develop a high-performing team with a shared vision for success. ASD will need resources to accomplish its goals and assure they are used with the correct priorities such as competitive salaries for teachers. Our community has been generous to our schools by supporting multiple funding initiatives. These need to be renewed, as well as potentially introducing others to solve issues like aging infrastructure and teacher housing. As the CFO of a multinational company, I have personal experience in all of these issues and can support the superintendent in accomplishing ASD goals.
Finally, to be successful, all leaders need to have a good working relationship and support from their boss, in this case the BOE. More emphasis should be placed on results rather than policy. Currently, a lot of time and energy is spent preparing and reviewing hundreds of pages of monitoring reports every year, but not enough emphasis is placed on value added discussions around key success factors. Examples include the failure to identify issues with culture and climate or the declining competitiveness of our teachers’ salaries. Five years of school board experience and 15 years of professional board experience will enable me to work with the superintendent to fix these issues. Please visit http://www.jonathannickellforschoolboard.org to find out more.
One of the very first duties of the new board will be to hire a new school superintendent — the first new superintendent the schools have had in almost 20 years! The choice of who the board hires must be very deliberate, since this superintendent may be leading the school for several years.
Three of the most crucial priorities of the new superintendent will be implementing the newly formulated strategic and facilities plans, improving teacher morale and retention, and establishing trust with both the School staff as well as the greater district community.
Using the strategic and facilities plans, the board must lay out clear direction on what kind of school they want over the next 10 to 20 years, and then the superintendent will be responsible for getting us there. Once clear goals and policies have been laid out by the board, it will be the responsibility of the superintendent to create procedures to meet those goals and a reporting structure to show that they have been met. This relationship has not always been clearly followed in the past. With a new superintendent and a new board, this will be a perfect opportunity to chart out clear roles moving forward.
The second priority is to get a handle on the challenges the district faces in managing the schools staff — both contract employees (mostly teachers) and non-contract employees. The schools needs to hire and, more importantly, retain the very best teachers. Teacher retention remains a very serious problem — too many of our teachers leave after just a few years, and we must figure out what it takes to stem that tide.
The third priority revolves around communication and transparency. The culture and climate work that the board undertook last year clearly showed that there are some definite challenges within the district along the lines of communication. While there is certainly room for improvement, the district does a decent job of informing the community about new initiatives or changes at the schools. What has been shown, however, is that the district does a lousy job of listening to the community — both internal and external. Truly listening to community voices is not easy for any organization, but the next superintendent and board will need to make this a priority. This change in communication style also must extend to district policies. The school family must know not just what is happening, but why it is happening.
I believe the three most critical issues facing the next superintendent are as follows:
1) Attracting and retaining great staff — Any organization is ultimately defined and made successful by its people. We cannot pay teachers a starting salary of $43,000, offer little to no housing solutions, and continue to eat into their planning time and expect our district to grow and flourish. Adjusted for cost of living, the starting salary we now offer is asking new teachers to sign up to live in poverty. This comes at a time when the teaching profession nationwide is under fire, making it even more important that Aspen be competitive in our hiring.
2) Academic performance and rigor — We are facing alarming academic performance, both at the front end with predictive indicators well below what is acceptable, and at the back end with kids failing in large numbers to graduate from the colleges at which they matriculate.
3) Culture and climate — Aspen School District is a wonderful place to be educated. That said, we carry some scar tissue from the last few years of turmoil, as well as cultural challenges, some of which are unique to Aspen and some that are prevalent nationwide. First, we need to continue to rebuild a sense of team and community among the staff. We need staff to feel supported and secure in their mission. Second, we need to look at what it means to have a small student body with a wide range of economic realities. Last, we need to continue to understand what it means to grow up in the age of anxiety created by social media, gun violence and global instability. We need to find ways to help our kids be resilient in the face of these challenges.
The most important way to support the superintendent in addressing these issues is to choose the right person, which will be my primary purpose. Secondly, I believe the superintendent will need the help of the board to define solutions sets at a high level, while protecting staff to enable them to nimbly adopt solutions within the framework of state public school mandates.
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