No answers in Benson brouhaha
December 14, 2006
Aspen, CO ColoradoASPEN A group of upset Aspen High teachers, hoping for a direct apology from the school district’s superintendent, was disappointed Monday.And to the question of whether popular varsity football coach Travis Benson would be reinstated, the teachers got nothing.All five members of the Aspen School Board met with some 20 teachers Monday afternoon to discuss the circumstances surrounding Benson’s resignation. Also at the meeting, which took place at a teacher’s request, were Superintendent Diana Sirko, Aspen High School Principal Charlie Anastas and district Athletic Director Carol Sams. Benson was not present. The popular two-year coach, who has more gridiron victories per year than any other coach since football returned to Aspen High less than a decade ago, quit unexpectedly last week. Benson reportedly was told for the first time two weeks earlier that there had been complaints from parents about his coaching abilities. District administrators have refused to reveal the exact nature or number of those complaints. Benson’s resignation came after Sirko, at a meeting with Anastas, Sams and Benson, brought up the idea of demoting Benson to assistant coach to make room for Sirko’s husband, Mike, as a “mentor” to the entire coaching staff.
Mike Sirko is retiring from his coaching position in the Colorado Springs area, where the Sirkos have a home and where they both worked before Diana took the job as Aspen’s superintendent.Diana Sirko has repeatedly said her intention was for the coaching changes to be temporary, and for Benson to retain his head-coach salary of some $4,500 a year.Mike Sirko, one of the more successful prep football coaches in the state, would work without pay and would not be under her supervision, Diana Sirko has emphasized, rejecting accusations of nepotism and conflict of interest. She also said Benson was given the option of declining the mentorship and staying on as head coach.But Benson “apparently … didn’t feel he really had a choice, might not have felt that was a good option [and felt that Sirko’s words were] a nice way of saying ‘We don’t want you to be involved in the program anymore,'” according to teacher Andre Wille.At Monday’s meeting, Sirko more than once, and in various ways, made remarks such as “I am deeply sorry for the way this happened, and the way it was perceived by Travis” and “if I could do it again, I might do it differently.”Several school board members said Sirko had advised them of her idea to bring Mike Sirko on board, and that they had advised her to back away from direct talks with Benson and leave that job to Anastas and Sams.Board members admitted Monday that their recommendation was not followed, but they supported Sirko’s actions, deferring to her role as the one in direct oversight of the district’s staff. They also indicated that they plan to formulate a more precise procedure for monitoring coaches in the future.
Some teachers, including Benson’s wife, Sarah, who works at the high school, pressed Sirko to apologize more frankly than she had, and directly to Travis Benson.Teacher Brian Hightower asked pointedly: “What can the board do to rein in a superintendent who maybe has too much power? It sounds like you’re kind of circling the wagons.”Board president Laura Kornasiewicz said keeping an eye on the superintendent is in effect the board’s sole supervisory function, and that the board supported “wholeheartedly Sirko’s actions and intentions.” She and other board members expressed confidence in Sirko’s abilities.Teacher Linda Lafferty told the board, “We want to move on … we want this to work … it’s torn us apart.”Wille added, “I suggest you not accept his resignation. Tell him you’re sorry, give him a chance … an opportunity to think about [asking for his coaching position back].”But the board, near the end of the 90-minute discussion, declined to give any indication if it was even possible that Benson might get his coaching position back.
Ernie Fyrwald, speaking as a citizen and not as a board member, at one point said, “Travis needs to be involved in the solution here. Travis doesn’t need to be going down the road.”But Kornasiewicz said the possibility of Benson’s reinstatement is up to Sirko, Anastas and Sams. The board has no role in personnel matters, she said.After the meeting, Lafferty said she belivies the superintendent wielded her “power” inappropriately, leaving Benson feeling “he had to resign.” She said the school board needs to figure out how “to resolve with dignity and get Travis back.”As for the mentorship idea, Lafferty cited an e-mail to the teachers from Kornasiewicz that suggested a mentor could be “someone else in the valley” to avoid any hint of nepotism or conflict of interest.”We’re waiting to see what they do,” she said of the school board’s next move. “They were so anxious to move on, and we are, too.”John Colson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org