Teacher morale a hot topic at Aspen School District Board of Education forum
October 11, 2017
Teacher morale, compensation and retention — some of the driving issues in the board election for the Aspen School District — also captured ample attention at a candidate forum Wednesday.
The five candidates for the Board of Education more or less agreed that teachers at Aspen public schools have felt undervalued in recent years. But they civilly sparred over the pace of progress teacher morale has made in recent years.
Statewide teacher turnover last year was 16.2 percent, compared with 10.2 percent at the Aspen School District, said forum co-moderator Kathy Klug, who leads the high school's counseling office. She attributed her data to the Colorado Department of Education.
Challengers Jonathan Nickell and Susan Zimet — both of whom are vying for two of the three open seats held by incumbent candidates Margeaux Johansson, Susan Marolt and Dwayne Romero — questioned those statistics, while maintaining that teachers continue to feel undervalued and don't speak out because of fear of retribution.
"We don't want to sweep under the rug these negative findings," Zimet said. "We think an effective board should embrace positive and negative data and confront it and deal with it."
Zimet and Nickell are both members of the District Accountability Committee, which serves as a watchdog for the school district. They said a recent DAC teacher survey revealed a troubling sentiment among teachers, though its overall finding showed an upswing in morale.
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"We found some concerning stuff, and what the board and what the school needs to do is come back to … really valuing teachers," Nickell said. "It's very inconsistent that we find a salary problem from 2014, and it takes us four years to solve it."
A recent Principal's Survey and Teacher Assessment Survey showed that recent internal and external hires improved teacher morale, as well.
Prior to Nickell and Zimet's statements, co-moderator Kitty Boone of the Aspen Institute noted that the district's teacher turnover rate since 2010 is 6 percent less than the state's, prompting her question about what board members can do to retain high-quality staff.
"We are performing better in terms of the teacher turnover rate, but I don't think that's necessarily a point of pride," Romero said. "There clearly is some systemic turnover — and some of it is natural progression, retirement, life changes — but some of it tells us that there are some issues in the context of culture and alignment, and the common expression I hear on the street is, 'I don't feel like the district has my back.' … We heard that in the community. It might be a perception, but it's out there as a perception in the community and it is an issue."
Romero said it's the board's job to "set the tone" by being supportive of teachers who want to speak out about issues at the district.
Johansson, meanwhile, said the DAC survey wasn't all doom and gloom.
"Great culture and great climate leads to great results for our students," she said in her closing remarks. "Are we there yet? I'm not sure we'll ever arrive at the ideal culture that we're all seeking. But according to last year's DAC survey, over 75 percent of our teaching staff believe we have a positive culture within our schools. And I know in the past two years we have excellent leadership in all three buildings (the elementary, middle and high schools). So I believe we're not where we want to be, but we're definitely heading in the right direction."
Likewise, Marolt said the school district is on the right track.
"The culture of our district has been improving and we can't improve it enough," she said. "That's a team atmosphere. We're all working together for our kids. The board sets that tone. It passes through the superintendent, it passes down through our administrators and teachers, and our kids feel it, and it's important. I'm committed to that. I think it's key to a lot of our issues, actually.
"The retention of our staff and the mental health of our kids and the ability of them to be engaged and to learn, it's all tied together. … Our community and our school community can do this together."
Nickell took a harder line, noting that a teacher who was quoted in the DAC survey expressed disappointment in the school district and is considering leaving.
"While we say we've made a lot of progress in all of these other things, we need to look and say, 'Hey, really? Are we meeting the needs and are we really being as good as we can be?'" he said. "My answer to that is 'no.' We are a good school (district); we can be great."