Aspen Times endorsement: Nickel, Romero and Zimet for Aspen Board of Education
November 5, 2017
Tensions often get high during election season, and we've seen that happen with the contest for three open seats on the Aspen School District Board of Education.
Whether the topic of debate has concerned test scores, teacher turnover or staff morale, the three seeking another term on the school board — Margeaux Johannson, Susan Marolt and Dwayne Romero — have found themselves on the defense.
Make no mistake: We are confident the incumbents have the best interest of the School District in mind. They are volunteers who devote countless hours in board meetings and school events. They work with government boards on school-related taxes.
They also must answer to the community when not all is rosy at the Aspen School District.
In months leading up to Tuesday's school board election, the School District has engaged in a publicity push for its incumbents. Has the district run afoul of campaign laws? We don't believe so, but we also don't think it is a stroke of coincidence that the incumbents have enjoyed an unfair advantage over challengers Jonathan Nickell and Dr. Susan Zimet, both of whom sit on the District Accountability Committee and have been persistent in their criticism of the School District and pointing out its blemishes.
There are ample examples demonstrating what we consider bad optics by the School District in its push for its board members.
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• On the School District's Twitter and Facebook feeds, it touted — without making a mention of the board election — the virtues of Johannson on Sept. 15, Marolt on Sept. 25, and Romero on Oct. 30. The board's president, Sandra Peirce, also was profiled on Twitter on Oct. 10 and Facebook on Oct. 5, and vice president Sheila Wills is scheduled next. This has been part of the school board's outreach plan that it began working on in the summer. Had the board members been profiled on the district's Twitter feed after the election, we wouldn't see this as a problem. But this is bad optics by the School District, while putting Nickell and Zimet at a disadvantage.
• The school held its own debate last month, with Kitty Boone of the Aspen Institute acting as one of the moderators. We were troubled that Kathy Klug, who runs the high school's counseling department, also was a moderator, and Peirce acted as the timer. We are not saying this was nefarious, but it also is not standard practice in other candidate forums. Imagine if the city manager or community-relations director moderated a campaign forum for City Council, while the incumbent mayor was the timer for the candidates' responses. We don't believe the community would stand for it because of their closeness to the matter.
• During the parent-teacher conferences at the elementary, middle and high schools last week, board members were on hand to espouse what the School District is doing right. On the surface that sounds fine, given that part of the school board members' job is to engage parents about educational matters. However, the School District denied a request from a supporter of Zimet's campaign who asked that a table be set up during the conferences for the challengers in order to create an even playing field. The School District's attorney noted that "the use of the school buildings for events of a political nature" are "specifically prohibited" by the district. Still, the incumbents were allowed to be there, and even if they were not directly campaigning, they had an unfair advantage over the challengers.
• When state Rep. Mille Hamner held a town-hall meeting at Aspen Square hotel in October, Wills opened the Q&A from the crowd by stating the school board has been doing a lot of hard work. She went on to say "it is a really tight board and a board that works very well together, so get those ballots in." She was stopped by Pitkin County Democrats chair Howard Wallach, who said the organization "was not taking a position. … We have a list of concerns we've been discussing with people." Once again, the timing was questionable.
The district's push for the three incumbents is clear, which should raise red flags to voters.
What we are witnessing is a board led by Peirce and Wills that doesn't want to see fresh perspective or diversity in opinion on the board. We have seen the incumbents — other than Romero — march in step with the Peirce and Wills. They have not shown any willingness to work with the District Accountability Committee or review its findings from earlier this year, instead dismissing it as stale or irrelevant data.
Indeed, there has been much haggling over the school district's academic performance and turnover. Statistics can be interpreted numerous ways, and that's what has happened this election season. (Editor's note: Peirce and Wills will have a guest op-ed from the district in the Monday Aspen Times as part of our community column series.)
There's nothing wrong with being on the defense; that's life as an elected official. Being defensive, however, should not be what we expect from an elected leader of the Aspen School District, but that is what we have seen from two of the incumbents this election season.
Romero is the most open-minded of the incumbents about criticism of the school district. Marolt and Johansson, however, appear to be rehashing the talking points of Peirce and Wills, without taking a critical look at the district's flaws. We certainly don't believe the School District is in dire straits. In fact, we believe it is a strong school system with solid teachers.
But the bunker mentality by the Board of Education needs to end. The board needs a deeper exchange of thoughts and ideas. The board needs to truly look at itself and what is it doing right and wrong. Instead, what we are seeing is a defensive tone being taken by the school board at large.
This apparent attempt to stifle the voices of Nickell and Zimet is not what we should expect from elected leaders in a democratic government.
Nickell and Zimet are not the nitpicking flies in the ointment some have portrayed them as being. They are highly educated and astute individuals who are not afraid to point out the School District's problems, and they have run masterful campaigns despite what strikes us as a broader effort by the School District to mute them.
It is time for changes on the Aspen School District's Board of Education. The Aspen Times endorses incumbent Dwayne Romero and challengers Jonathan Nickell and Dr. Susan Zimet for the board.
The Aspen Times editorial board consists of Publisher Samantha Johnston, Editor David Krause, Managing Editor Rick Carroll and community member Kathryn Koch.
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