New Aspen School District superintendent undeterred by COVID-19 challenges
At a time of layoffs, job losses, self-isolation and uncertainty, there lives a man in Pennsylvania who plans to move to Aspen this summer for one of the upper Roaring Fork Valley’s highest profile — and often scrutinized — positions.
David Baugh in March accepted the job as the superintendent of the Aspen School District after a nationwide search the district and an outside firm started in December. Still superintendent of Centennial School District in the greater Philadelphia area, Baugh spent part of Friday handing out food to students on the district’s free and reduced plan for meals.
“We just finished three site feedings,” Baugh said via telephone.
Baugh, 58, will remain at the helm of the 5,900-student district until the end of June; he is scheduled to begin work as ASD superintendent July 1, the same day Aspen High School Principal Tharyn Mulberry is set to transfer into his new role as assistant superintendent.
Tom Heald has been interim superintendent for the 2019-20 school year.
Baugh and Mulberry will take their respective positions at a time when educators are taking on creative measures and initiatives through remote learning due to school closures across the country because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Aspen School District began distance learning on Wednesday, following more than two weeks of class closure due to both COVID-19 and spring break. The district — which includes Aspen Community School in Woody Creek, as well as an on-campus preschool, elementary, middle, high school off Maroon Creek Road — has not been open since March 13.
“I think distance learning will become an integrated parcel” of education in the future, Baugh said. “That’s sort of the new frontier in public education, and it might be an opportunity to move out of 180 days a year and seven hours a day within the classroom walls.”
Gov. Jared Polis has ordered mandatory closure of all schools until at least April 30.
Continuing to educate and feed the students in the Centennial district have been Baugh’s most pressing concerns during the closure, he said, including possibly moving the late spring senior prom and commencement exercises to the summer.
Soon, however, Baugh’s priorities will shift to getting to Aspen in July. What the world looks like then is another question, but Baugh said his aim is to relocate here by then. If not, he said he will work remotely as the ASD superintendent until conditions become permissible for him to head West.
“I think there are worse places to ride out a global pandemic than Aspen,” Baugh said. “But I also figure the challenges here (in Pennsylvania) are not dissimilar to Aspen, Colorado.”
Baugh’s three-year rolling contract with ASD also has a clause that says he can work remotely as superintendent if conditions aren’t safe to relocate this summer.
“Ninety-five percent of the superintendent’s job can be done remotely,” he said.
Baugh, named by his peers as Pennsylvania’ superintendent of the year for 2020, went through a ringer of interviews with the Aspen School district earlier this year.
That included answering a three-part essay question, doing in-person and remote interviews, and in the first week of March holding a meet-and-greet with ASD stakeholders one night, and offering his world view of education to a public audience the next morning.
“The interview process was well underway when America started being affected by this,” he said of COVID-19. “Most of us were watching China with cause for concern, so it wasn’t really a problem until after that last interview (in early March).”
By the time America began to feel the impact, Baugh and the Board of Education were in serious job talks, he said.
“The die had largely been cast and I’d already made a commitment to going to Aspen if the position was offered,” he said, noting that “as we’re negotiating, this thing keep going from bad to worse and we don’t know what we’re dealing with.”
Baugh, however, said he is fine with uprooting his life during a pandemic. The single father has one daughter, 24, who works for Vail Resorts, so he has close company.
Baugh’s teaching experience spans from the elementary to collegiate level. He received a doctorate in educational leadership from Seton Hall, a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s of humanities from Aberdeen University in Scotland.
He has been superintendent of the Centennial district since September 2015.
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While the number of bears in Aspen has been manageable so far this summer, a lack of natural food sources could change that as fall approaches.