February 27, 2002
Last Tuesday night’s school board meeting was a watershed event, as the makeup of the audience showed that there is a major rift regarding the Aspen public school system.
In one camp was a group of teachers and administrators, who provide the educational services. In the other was a group of parents whose children are the consumers of those services.
The putative issue discussed at the meeting was whether to renew Superintendent Tom Farrell’s contract beyond its remaining two years for an additional third year. But something more fundamental was really the topic of conversation.
In a nutshell, the consumers were saying that the service needed improvement. And the service providers were saying that things are just fine the way they are.
You might think that in service industries the consumer is always right. After all, with any service product, if the consumer is not satisfied with the service then the service is a failure.
But the majority of the school board doesn’t seem to think so, at least for the time being. Rather, the constituency they seem to be heeding is that of the service providers, who are eager to get Tom’s contract renewed.
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And since it’s easy to understand any school board’s reluctance to alienate the educators who teach the kids and the administrators who manage the school, that position at first blush seems reasonable.
Unfortunately, it’s getting hard to ignore that elephant sitting in the middle of many middle and high school classes. That so many parents were willing to show up and publicly voice their dissatisfaction shows how serious the problem has become, especially since the first people willing to speak out are usually the tip of the iceberg.
That’s why the decision whether or not to renew Tom’s contract for a third year, when that contract already has two remaining years, should be put aside for the time being. There is enough time on Tom’s existing contract to allow the school board to proceed carefully .
The school board should consider commissioning a new independent study, similar to the one the city of Aspen recently completed regarding employee housing, to address the issues raised by the consumers.
That study would be money well spent, especially before the school district’s new buildings are completed and occupied. With that information in hand, the school board would then know whether Tom Farrell is part of the solution or part of the problem .
We should not rush the decision to extend the contract now that so many consumers have publicly stated that the service needs serious improvement. In the past, Tom’s contract has been renewed without debate. Now is the time for the school board to act reflectively, not reflexively.
Susan M. Zimet