Elizabeth Milias: It’s academic: Skip A and go straight to Z

Elizabeth Milias
The Red Ant

The election on Nov. 2 is for, among other things, three seats on the school board. Throughout the pandemic, school boards across the country became hotbeds of political dissent and chaos. Thankfully, our local school board has not gotten mired in the national controversies and mask battles; the priority for local families has simply been to have their kids back in school. Since the Pitkin County Board of Health has dictated that masks are mandatory, it’s decided. While not particularly popular, it’s not controversial either. It’s out of the school board’s hands.

This has enabled our school board to focus on things that really matter.

During the tenure of current board president Dr. Susan Zimet, the school board has hired a new superintendent and assistant superintendent, plus new principals at the high school, middle school and elementary school. Curriculum audits of elementary and middle school math and reading have been conducted and changes have been implemented. A $114 million bond issue for teacher housing and deferred facilities maintenance was supported on a bipartisan basis by the community. Teacher pay has increased. And Zimet spearheaded a “master agreement,” streamlining the terms of employment for teachers, something they have requested for twenty years. With these pillars in place, it’s now time to begin the long climb back to the top, where the Aspen schools once were and should be again. It is imperative that we re-elect Susan Zimet to the school board for the continuity of her leadership and to tackle the hard work ahead.

It’s important to know a few things about the Aspen schools before deciding who else to vote for. The district currently has 1,653 students and a $32 million budget. The Aspen Education Foundation donated another $2.7 million in 2020, with funds dedicated to specific “beyond classroom” programming that has historically funded a robotics program, an additional college counselor and an IB coordinator. Our schools have a 13:1 student to teacher ratio. Our well-funded schools are notable for Outdoor Education, which provides life-changing experiences in the wilderness. We have a 94% high school graduation rate. The campus has a chairlift accessing Aspen Highlands, and there’s an aircraft flight simulator at the middle school.

Aspen also used to be ranked No. 1 in Colorado. Today we’re No. 15. An “equity survey” conducted last year revealed that body image and the need for self-censorship (students feel they can’t speak their mind) concern our high school students. While improved, teacher pay in Aspen notably lags behind other districts in the state and continues to affect retention. The mental health of our student body is paramount as students readjust post-COVID, and especially given the recent tragic suicide of a middle schooler. In 2019, only 60% of our third graders were reading at grade level. They were all moved ahead to fourth grade. And then COVID hit. Now they’re all in fifth grade.

In other words, now that our kids are back in the classroom, it’s imperative that we prioritize engaging them academically while they’re there. The extracurriculars our schools offer cannot become distractions from the focus on academics. There is school and there is the classroom. We must identify and address the residual vulnerabilities from screen vs. in-person learning due to COVID, while preparing our youngest students for the philosophy of learning offered by the International Baccalaureate program as early as elementary and middle school. We must continually strive to improve teacher compensation by restructuring the salary schedule to remain competitive and retain our best educators. And let’s keep politics out of the classroom. School should be a-political. A great lesson for all our students is to learn to respect diversity of thought and opinion.

Enter Anna Zane, dedicated volunteer and 10-year member of the district accountability committee, who is a founding member of the parent action committee that focuses on improving the climate and culture of the district. Zane’s passion for excellence in education in Aspen has been her life’s work; she is an Aspen K-12 alum and her four children’s attendance in the district will encompass three decades. Her priorities specifically mirror what we need, and additionally include annual measurable academic achievement, as well as improved transparency, accountability and communication.

The letter Z, unlike its position in the alphabet, shall now be first. I am voting for Zane and Zimet, the two candidates who were notably NOT endorsed by the teachers union. That should tell you something. These two women reject the status quo and vigorously advocate for our students’ mastery of essential skills in math and literacy. As our school district moves beyond the recent era of resting on our academic laurels, it’s vital to have a leadership team in place that lives up to our high expectations for academic excellence. With Zane and Zimet, the board will be strongly positioned to continually upgrade the curriculum, attract and retain the best teachers — and house them, challenge our students to make yearly academic progress, and prepare our kids for college if that is their goal, while providing a safe, inclusive and welcome environment.

Anna Zane and Dr. Susan Zimet for school board.

The honor roll has just been brought back to the high school. Zane and Zimet are on mine. Contact