Meredith C. Carroll: Time for a shake-up on Aspen school board

Meredith C. Carroll
Muck Off

In response to the congratulatory messages heaped on her when Aspen Elementary School’s High Mountain Harmony Choir received the prestigious Honor Performing Group distinction from the Colorado Music Editors Association last month, music teacher Marnie White offered a quote from renowned conductor Benjamin Zander: “A conductor doesn’t make a sound. He depends, for his power, on his ability to make other people powerful … to awaken possibility in other people.”

White’s humbleness seemingly belies the significant role she actually played in earning the award. Yet that’s often the mark of a great director: nourishing actors with ideas and quietly gathering tools for them to undergo a theatrical metamorphosis in order to elevate their performance.

While tons of reasons exist to celebrate the Aspen School District, crediting the Board of Education with much of that success is tricky, and not because they, too, modestly deflect accolades to the faculty, staff and students.

With five candidates battling for three seats on Aspen’s BOE election on Tuesday, The Aspen Times recently ran a five-part questionnaire series with responses from the candidates in their own words. Based on the more-or-less generic replies from two of the three incumbents in the race, you wouldn’t necessarily know how much and in how many ways the ASD has declined over the past several years.

Challengers Susan Zimet and Jonathan Nickell, on the other hand, came out with guns blazing. Both volunteer their time on the state-mandated District Accountability Committee, which does the wholly unsexy and largely uncredited and unseen work of slogging through statistics, trends, reports, graphs and metrics (not to mention all those TPS reports) that are then compared and contrasted with other Colorado districts of corresponding size and socioeconomic makeup, while also checking best practices according to state and national education organizations — all of which helps them make detailed recommendations to the BOE.

Unfortunately, though, the BOE’s response to the 50-plus-page report presented to them by the DAC in April was to call a meeting to better facilitate communication between the two groups. The BOE has still not sat down with the DAC to discuss the actual report.

Some of the data in the DAC report is open to interpretation — depending on the source, who’s looking and on what day, and to what and whom it’s being measured. Other data are more straightforward, including how ASD students aren’t performing as well as they were a few years ago and teachers are leaving in larger numbers, getting comparatively smaller pay raises and feeling unheard and unsupported. Still, delivering a message that can be construed as reflecting poorly on the recipients isn’t an excuse to ignore it.

Of course no school should be judged solely on test scores, and thankfully the ASD is no stranger to praise. It’s entirely possible the BOE gets so distracted by applause that it fails to notice how its composite score has dropped and its aspirational goals are lower than what the state suggests. In fact, the ASD is no longer even attempting to meet and exceed annual student academic growth goals, but rather merely approach them.

Not helping matters is how little the BOE sets aside for teacher professional development. The National School Boards Association recommends districts spend as much as $5,000 per teacher annually, or 1.7 percent — 7.6 percent of their budget. Aspen teachers are allotted $699 each, or 0.4 percent of the budget.

It’s clear Zimet and Nickell — and incumbent Dwayne Romero — aren’t running for the prestige. They’re waist-deep in supporting documents and ideas, and while doing the hard work to right the ship isn’t always pretty, neither are high teacher turnover rates and downward trends of under-performing students.

“We don’t want to sweep these negative findings under the rug,” Zimet said. “We think an effective board should embrace positive and negative data and confront it and deal with it.”

Aspen’s current BOE president and vice president, whose terms expire in two years, are good talkers, even if their listening skills aren’t nearly as fluent. That’s all the more reason why the people sitting beside them at the table moving forward need to really hear what’s being said — by the DAC, teachers, administrators, students and parents — and speak up and tackle worsening problems head-on instead of running in a less productive or complicated direction.

The role of the BOE isn’t to play district cheerleader (especially since Aspen High School already has a dance team that does a first-rate job); ASD has an enthusiastic community and also the sincere and financial support of the prolific Aspen Education Foundation. The BOE, which does many wonderful things, needs to stop playing the star and start acting more like the director: generating and implementing new ideas, advocating for its players and ensuring the right tools are available for a triumphant performance.

Zimet, Nickell and Romero seem to have their eye on the real prize — and if they get it, it’s safe to say they happily won’t claim it as their own.

More at