Guest Column: Ending the divisiveness
November 19, 2015
I'd like to clear the air with regard to the events between the Aspen School District and the Jewish community during the past week with a goal of beginning a healing process and ending the divisiveness that could potentially continue to grow in our tight-knit and diverse community.
My husband, Adam, and I have genuinely acknowledged and accepted Sheila Wills' sincere apology to our community and believe we are on a path toward reaching a mutual understanding on how to best approach the Jewish high holidays and the school calendar.
Several years ago, after years of work with community members, the holiest days in the Jewish religion began being printed on the district calendar, although, unfortunately, to limited success. Smaller, easier-to-avoid conflicts, such as tests and field trips, scheduled on the Jewish high holidays were on the rise — and the eighth grade outdoor-education and high school experiential-education trips this year were during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, respectively. Members of our community have increasingly been feeling as if our beliefs are not being respected, and the school board and administration are not holding to its promises.
On Nov. 12, members of the Jewish community met with Superintendent John Maloy, school principals and several other administration members, including Susan Marolt and Sheila Wills. The first hour of our meeting was very productive. All four principals voiced strong support for our concerns, and the administration expressed an interest in continuing to work together. All was positive and productive until we were derailed by unfortunate comments made by Sheila. The comments were not just insensitive to the historical sacrifices of Jews, but more meaningfully, the comments implied a lack of appreciation for diversity of all kinds and a belief that diversity takes away from other students' experiences rather than adds to it.
I received an outpouring of concerns over the comment from people of many types of religious beliefs and practices. As the leader of this effort, I could not remain silent — thereby implicitly condoning the remarks — even if it required making a difficult public declaration of religious beliefs. A large group of concerned parents showed up for public comment at Monday's school board meeting, where we presented our compliments to the administration for the work done to date, our thoughts on the diversity issue, along with a clear request for how we'd like to move forward.
Subsequently, Sheila wrote a lengthy letter of apology in the newspapers this week, which would not have been easy for anyone to write. Adam and I also had an earnest conversation with Sheila on Wednesday morning. From the bottom of our hearts, Adam and I believe that she is profoundly sorry for her remarks, and most importantly, she ensured us she respects and celebrates diversity. She clarified her comments from last Thursday and answered the questions we presented to her, in absentia, on Monday. We also addressed the issue of the "fortress mentality" as it relates to the stony silence we were met with during public comments at Monday's board meeting. This is the same mentality many parents and teachers have expressed encountering over the years. Sheila certainly seemed open to changing the board's approach.
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On the original issue of the calendar, we received a very prompt and encouraging email from John Maloy earlier this week, which is a great leap forward. While there are no specific guarantees on any of the scheduling issues we face, we feel we are being heard as never before and see a clear and welcome path to express our voice.
A board of education meeting is scheduled for 4 p.m. Dec. 14, at which time the issue of scheduling and the Jewish holidays is on the agenda. All interested are encouraged to attend for what we know will be a healthy and positive discussion. At that time, we plan to share any progress that has been made in the interim and brainstorm how to deal with future challenges, which we acknowledge will be inevitable. The school board appears eager to move forward with a more open and community-oriented approach, and for that, they deserve much commendation.
As Thanksgiving rapidly approaches, we all have much to be grateful for in our little ski town, and no doubt one of the largest thanks needs to go to all the people who make our school district so special and a cornerstone of keeping our ski town a real community focused on all of us who live here full time.
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