New AEF executive director ready to confront challenges | AspenTimes.com

New AEF executive director ready to confront challenges

ASPEN – Helen Ward isn’t one to shy away from a challenge, and that’s a good thing. As the new executive director of the Aspen Education Foundation, Ward is sure to face her fair share of tests in raising money for the local public schools.

“I think I respond well to a challenge. I am not afraid; I’ve worked on Wall Street, so I am not afraid of the sharks,” said Ward, who last week was named to replace Cindy Kahn at the nonprofit’s helm. “Of course this is different in many ways, but to be honest, I am more invested in the outcome.”

In fact, Ward comes into AEF having some experience with the organization; she served on its board for two years in the mid-2000s. But a lot has changed – with AEF, with funding for the Aspen School District and with the nation’s economy – since then.

“What’s going on with education is dynamic and exciting, but also terrifying,” admitted Ward, the mother of two Aspen High students whose background includes a career in finance and work with educational institutions like New York City Outward Bound. “On the education side of things, my job is to listen and learn. On the fundraising side, I have been in the business world a long time and I know how to be constantly looking at the bottom line – and I am not afraid to pick up the phone and ask for help.

“We’re looking at a whole new world when it comes to education and fundraising.”

Indeed, the focus of AEF has changed since its inception in 1991. According to current board president Mark Leydecker, “What started as sort of a more advanced PTA has morphed into an integral part of our entire school system. Everyone is looking to AEF to help not only bridge the gaps, but maintain the staff and programs the Aspen School District expects.”

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Toward that end, AEF has undergone some restructuring of late. Namely, it has slashed its administrative costs by more than half by reducing the director’s salary and eliminating an office assistant.

“We have two jobs: to educate the community on the realities of our school budget, and then to actually raise the money to help that situation,” Leydecker said. “We can only do this if we ensure our donors that every penny possible goes back to the schools and the kids.”

Of course that’s easier said than done. Leydecker and Ward agree that the greatest challenge facing AEF – and the Aspen School District as a whole – is the ongoing budget crisis. And, more important, getting the community to understand just how real the crisis is locally. (The Aspen School District has been forced to make massive cuts each of the last two years, though a voter-approved mill levy override has softened the blow).

“It is real, and while we don’t want to be apocalyptic, we need people to understand what is going on,” said Ward, adding that the idea that the Aspen schools are better off than other schools because they’re in Aspen is false. “We have lost significant per-pupil funding, and eventually that will mean losing teachers and programs, and that means larger class sizes and changes to programs like Outdoor Ed.

“Our goal is to stop that from happening.”

Fortunately, the optimist in Ward sees opportunity in the current state of affairs. There was a time, she said, that AEF took direction from donors on where money should go. Now, the nonprofit defers to Aspen school administrators, with Superintendent Dr. John Maloy in the lead, on how funds should be spent. If donors balk, she is confident she can help them see the light.

“If someone comes to me saying they want to give money toward a Renaissance festival, I will tell them thanks, but what we really need is to keep the advanced chemistry teacher,” she said, noting that AEF has, in fact, turned away contributions that come with strings attached. “Most rational people will understand this.”

Still, it could be an uphill battle in the current economic climate, with the dual challenge for AEF of attracting big-money donors and engaging the average school district family.

For her part, Ward has plenty of ideas on how to make that happen. At the top of the list is engaging kids in the fundraising effort. AEF will also move its annual benefit from the spring to the fall, “when everyone’s a little more enthusiastic.” It also gives the school district a better idea how much it can expect to receive from AEF.

Last year, for example, $400,000 was funneled back into the schools for everything from a college counselor and math specialist to supplies and training.

This coming year, Ward has set her sights high – twice as high.

“$800,000,” she said with a laugh. “It’s doable. If we can get people to understand what is really going on with the school budget, and once they realize that their money will really go where the schools need it, I think we can be successful.

“We have to try. It’s that important.”

For more information on the Aspen Education Foundation, visit http://www.aspenaef.org.

jmcgovern@aspentimes.com