Meredith C. Carroll: Truthiness and Aspen’s board of education
March 6, 2018
Last week, the Aspen School District sent out a news release touting the first teacher pay raise of note in a dozen years. The announcement on the "historic new salary structure" was made by one of the two contract publicists hired by the ASD in 2015 at a cost of $60 to $75 per hour, which has amounted to $19,527 so far in Fiscal Year 2017-18.
In addition to their work writing releases and running the ASD's Twitter feed, the publicists spent more than $10,000 producing a glossy brochure praising the schools that was mailed out in October at around the same time as ballots for November's Board of Education election in which three incumbents ran to retain their seats. Shortly thereafter, less than a week before the election, members of the BOE parked themselves inside each school during parent-teacher conferences to discuss what they characterized as the district's "priorities" as part of its newly established "communications plan." (No announcement has been made about a BOE presence during next week's parent-teacher conferences.)
Noticeably absent from the ASD's good-news campaign, though, has been other, less-good news. The Colorado Department of Education issued its Final 2017 School Performance Framework in November, revealing Aspen High School had been placed on an "improvement" plan. According to the CDE report, AHS meets most and exceeds some academic standards, but fell short on its test accountability participation rates: Students opting out of state exams have, in large part, failed to do so in a way that doesn't penalize the school's standing. Never mind that educating parents about the proper way to withdraw kids from standardized tests is an easy fix; the BOE has an apparent allergy to news that may reflect poorly on them.
Spinning bad news into silence is a trick the BOE has mastered, especially with some of their more eyebrow-raising policies passed through consent agendas or discussed in executive session, including a "code of conduct" for members of the state-mandated, all-volunteer District Accountability Committee. Policy GP-7A, adopted by the BOE in a 3-2 vote nine days before the election, instructs DAC members "to build trust among committee members and to ensure an environment conducive to effective governance" by "criticiz(ing) privately, prais(ing) publicly," "focus(ing) on issues rather than personalities," and "publicly support(ing) final actions of the committee and the board," among other directives.
To be fair, the BOE-mandated conduct for the DAC isn't terribly different from the board's own rules. Policy GP-9 states BOE members' "interaction with the public, press or other entities must recognize the same limitation and the inability of any board member to speak for the board except to repeat explicitly-stated Board decisions."
In response to a request for comment, BOE President Sheila Wills defended the policy, saying, "The Board of Education consists of five individuals, each with their own opinions. Until the full board takes action on an issue, there is no 'board opinion.' Therefore, what I, Dwayne, Suzy, Sandra or Susan think before the board has a discussion and takes action on a topic is not really relevant. Only board action has any bearing on the direction of the district."
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However, not everyone agrees the individual opinions of board members before or after an issue is decided are irrelevant, including Aspen City Councilman Adam Frisch.
The BOE seems to harbor a "general fear of dissension and diversity of thought," Frisch said. "It's not helpful for the community. I think (the BOE) is overly paranoid. I'm just not sure what the upside is of having lockstep public policy."
Wills suggests those seeking deeper understanding of individual board members' opinions "should attend our meetings." Yet Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, points out that passively listening is different than asking questions and engaging in dynamic, two-way communication.
"While no law requires elected officials to speak with reporters," he said, "a ban on dialogue with the news media deprives the public of insight into how their school district operates, how policies are set and how their elected officials decide to spend tax dollars."
Compounding the issue of the BOE disallowing individual members from disagreeing outside of board meetings while also remaining silent on issues like state improvement plans or, say, changes to the district's snow-day policy, is that when not-so-good news is uncovered as opposed to proactively revealed, many successes are ultimately diminished by "painting a large cloud over the district," said one source with detailed insight into the BOE.
Pitkin County commissioner and former Aspen mayor and councilwoman Rachel Richards suspects, too, the BOE's media policy does a disservice to the entire community.
"It strikes me that during these times when policy positions are coming out of Washington, D.C., by tweets instead of press conferences, that people are (even) more interested in what's going on," Richards said. "When there are implications that affect people, they have a right to know what they are and why. You can't fix any problem until people have a common understanding and agreement of what the problem actually is."
Still, the good-news train keeps chugging — the communications consultants were on the agenda for Monday's BOE meeting to discuss "2018 BOE Communication Ideas" such as another brochure (this time printed on heavier stock) and board members visiting classrooms "based on their interests." A header at the bottom of the agenda-item document titled "Additional topic might include" had a bullet point for "State-wide testing and opt-out and how it affects our district."
In an emailed response to a question about the media policy, BOE Vice-President Dwayne Romero praised Wills for summing up their position "cleanly and clearly."
While it's debatable if the BOE's approach is either clean or clear, what's unequivocal is that good communication is considerably deeper and more nuanced that the BOE seems willing to concede.
"An elected school board is bound to include members with differing opinions and perspectives," Roberts said. "Just getting one member's perspective, even if he or she is supposedly speaking for the entire board, provides the public with only a partial picture of what's really going on."
Follow Meredith Carroll on Twitter @MCCarroll. More at MeredithCarroll.com.