Parents demand change at Aspen School District, fill school board meeting
September 17, 2018
A spillover crowd of parents packed the Aspen Board of Education's Monday meeting in what signaled their first public salvo to remove Dr. John Maloy as superintendent.
Their claims of a campus where teachers are afraid to speak their minds because of a so-called toxic culture, however, didn't resonate with the only two teachers who spoke during the public-comments portion of the meeting.
"As an employee and as a parent, I am proud of the collaboration that exists between the faculty and the administration and the school board, between our Aspen Education Association and its faculty, and the community at large," said Julie Markalunas Hall, a speech pathologist at the elementary school.
Likewise, Jared Thompson, a physical education teacher at the elementary school, said he also hasn't experienced the teacher climate of fear that has been alleged.
"It's a very positive atmosphere at the elementary school," he said. "The kids are happy, the teachers feel confident and supported. … To me, it's a positive place to work. I've enjoyed my 17 years here."
The parents' concerns were enough, however, for board President Sheila Wills to say the board would look into the culture that appears to be paining some faculty members. A work session addressing the issue could be scheduled for October, she said.
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"We are a board that cares," she said. "We are a board that listens."
Wills said the board is familiar with teachers' concerns, and "we've been concerned about it for a while."
No teachers spoke negatively about the district because they are fearful of repercussions, said those behind Aspen Parent Action Committee, a newly formed group that began meeting last week in private.
"Our schools aren't performing, they're spending more money, making questionable hires and fires, and there's no transparency with the parents and the community," parent Bettina Slusar said. "It's not OK. We believe it has to change. And we're here as a group and as a community call to action.
"The teachers have been silent because they're afraid, but the data tells the story."
Slusar and other parents presented data showing the high school has slipped from third to 20th since 2010 in the Colorado Department of Education's ratings. The elementary school, once ranked 61st, now is 344th, Slusar said.
She also made a not-so-subtle suggestion about where the problem lies.
"I don't come from the academic world," she said. "I come from the business world. And we have a saying, and it's not polite but it's true: 'Fish rots from the head down.'"
Maloy did not publicly address the criticism that was levied his way. His annual performance review is set for next month. In October, the school board extended his contract through June 30, 2020. Wills told the audience the board will independently review his contract in executive session. Some parents suggested that Maloy undergo a 360 review by having colleagues and peers assess his job performance.
"We've had conversations about that," Wills said.
Maloy left his previous superintendent job in Indiana under the same conditions that are currently plaguing the Aspen School District, parent Patsy Kurkulis said. She referred to quotes from teachers in Indiana who worked under Maloy. The common thread among the Indiana and Aspen teachers is Maloy's unsettling management style, she said.
"The fear of these teachers is real, and it's trickling down to the test scores and performance of Aspen students," Kurkulis said.
Parents also accused the administration of engaging in nepotism; Maloy's daughter is the district psychologist, while another parent criticized Maloy and Wills for supporting Elizabeth Hodges, the district's human resources director who was disbarred in April from practicing law in Missouri for her estate-planning work for an elderly couple. A grand jury also indicted her for a felony related to the same work; she pleaded it down to a misdemeanor in December 2016 and is currently serving two years of unsupervised probation.
"Criminality has infected the working environment," Butler said. "Does your staff feel safe knowing the HR director has been disbarred, accused of stealing money from dead clients and charged with a felony, all in a work setting? She has access to all of their private information.
"How does the staff feel when the chairman of the board and the superintendent both voice their strong support for this criminal? Once again, to whom may teachers and staff voice their concerns?"
Wills cut Butler off from remarking more on the matter.
"We all know who bears the responsibility for hiring and firing," Butler responded.
Kathy Klug, who retired earlier this year from her full-time position as the lead college counselor but still helps the school district, spoke highly of Maloy and his ability to keep the district on solid financial footing.
"I commend our superintendent on those kind of practices that keep us stable enough to talk about innovative programs," she said.
Conflict goes with any organization, but cries of a toxic culture serve only to divide, Klug said, adding that school data can be looked at many ways.
"You need to look carefully before you say we are a diminishing school district," she said.
Parent Bill Carlson said the parent committee plans to keep a presence.
"We're not a bunch of softies," he said, "saying 'Oh, my god, we're afraid.'"
He added: "We look forward to participating at every meeting until things begin to change."
Roughly 70 to 80 parents attended Monday's meeting.
The 2018 results of the Teaching and Learning Conditions Colorado Survey, formerly known as TELL Colorado and administered by the Colorado Department of Education, show that 77 percent of Aspen School District staff members were confident in district leadership, which was below the state average of 79 percent. The results were made available in January.
One of statements in the survey, "Staff feel comfortable raising important issues with school leaders," yielded 70 percent in agreement, with 28.1 percent saying they strongly agreed and another 41.9 percent saying they agreed. The remaining 30 percent were in dissent, with 16.8 percent replying they did not agree and another 13.2 percent saying they strongly disagreed.
Another 78 percent of the respondents agreed that "this school is led by an effective team," which also was below of the state average of 82 percent. The answer "strongly agree" generated 30.5 percent in responses, while 47.9 percent reported that they agree. The response "strongly disagree" saw 6.6 percent in favor, and "disagree" registered 15 percent.
Surveys were sent to 187 Aspen School District employees for the 2018 results; 138 teachers, or 77 percent, responded, another six responses came from school leaders, and 22 were from education professionals and service providers, according to the survey.
The survey can be found at https://tlcc-reports.cedu.io/reports/401808/surveys/0/modules/0/constructs/02-SCHOOL-LEADERSHIP.
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