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Basalt schools get a new outdoor, experiential coordinator

The Basalt Education Foundation’s new outdoor/experiential education coordinator, Desiree Pimentel, has busied herself in sorting through outdoor gear and planning day ski trips for students since beginning in early February. Anything to take the load off of the teachers.

Amy Honey, executive director of the foundation, said the idea for the position came directly from school administrators themselves.

“(Teachers) said, ‘We’d love to increase our outdoor ed and experiential ed and we’re having trouble finding the bandwidth to do that,'” Honey said. “Normally, we give out our support just financially, but (teachers) were saying we need people hours to help us take some burden off.”

In a valley with an abundance of outdoor activities just outside the classroom, Pimentel said, giving students experiences in the outdoors is invaluable. Not only is it allowing for students to build a community from shared experiences, but it creates equity throughout the economically diverse schools.

“Kids have different access to these types of experiences, whether it’s not their family’s thing or there’s a financial barrier,” said Honey. “If these kinds of (experiences) can happen at school where everyone has to participate, everyone can be talking about their shared experience the next day. I think that’s important.”

Pimentel added they are working toward finding experiences everyone can do regardless of mental or physical disability. Partnering with organizations such as Challenge Aspen and Smiling Goat Ranch allows the schools to include all students in their different events.

“The partnerships with all these people who are contributing and working with the schools to add this programming will create equity for all and create compelling, adventurous things for everybody,” said Pimentel.

The experiential aspect of her position will be just as important as the outdoor part, they said. Not every student is going to love camping or skiing, for instance.

“Some of the trips are not necessarily nature,” Honey said. “The high school juniors go see colleges and for a lot of them, it’s the first college trip they’ve made. Also, there are chances to go and see things like the planetarium, which makes education exciting and engaging.”

Pimentel’s position was created to ease the workload of teachers and them to focus on curriculum, while Pimentel helps tie experiences into the curriculum. Teachers are able to talk to Pimentel about what they are learning in class and offer suggestions for field trips that coincide with curriculum.

“(Pimentel’s) there to support teachers. You guys tell her what to do, and she’s there to support. We’re letting (teachers) drive the train in terms of what they want to accomplish,” Honey said.

Another goal of the position is to create a progression in outdoor and experiential education from kindergarten through high school. It can be hard for a fourth grader to want to spend nights away from home on a camping trip, Honey said. However, if they start with single night trips at a younger age, by the time the kids are in older grades, they will have a higher comfort level with overnight trips.

“We’re super excited about that potential as Desiree goes on to create that progression and that culture that (outdoor ed) is something we do,” Honey said.

Pimentel has been the foundation board secretary for two years and is a member of the Taste Basalt Committee. She is a nearly 20-year employee of Aspen Skiing Co. and is currently the culinary executive assistant at the Little Nell. She has a National Outdoor Leadership School certification in Leadership, Environmental Ethics and Skills Practicum and is a qualified “Leave no Trace” trainer, which has prepared her for her new role in Basalt schools.

“When teachers are excited about something they want to do but they don’t have time to plan it, I’m hoping they can come to me and say, ‘I want to do this cool thing. Can you research it? Can you help me find the money for it?'” Pimentel said.

Though she has only done one Buttermilk ski day so far, Pimentel said she hopes to continue with different kinds of trips and experiences as spring approaches. Right now, she’s spending her time sorting through and collecting gear and getting ideas from teachers.

“I think it is an incredible position to be able to help teachers in a way. It’s amazing how much I’m doing already,” she said.

Middle school mathletes head to state competition

Liz Coyle’s MathCounts class was buzzing with excitement on Thursday afternoon as students prepared for the upcoming MathCounts state competition. The students were chatting while snacking on pretzels and popcorn because, as they put it, “snacks go well with math.”

MathCounts is a nationwide math program for middle schoolers of all ability levels. It is meant to build confidence and improve attitudes about math and problem solving.

The Aspen Middle School team placed second at the Western Slope Region of the competition on Feb. 25 and will head to the state competition at Cherry Creek High School on Saturday.

Students review practice tests ahead of the state competition.
Audrey Ryan/The Aspen Times

In addition to the team of four, Aspen Middle School sent six individuals to the first competition in Grand Junction. Though none of the them qualified for state, Coyle said they had one student who was very close.

The team qualifying for state is made up of Zoe Owen, Kieron Byford, Greta DeBacker, and Justin Mavrovic.

“I think because we did better than we thought we would (at regionals), I’m going to have a lot more confidence going into states than I did going into regionals,” said Zoe.

Zoe Owen, Greta DeBacker, Kieron Byford, and Justin Mavrovic’s MathCounts team qualified for the state competition in Denver on Saturday.
Audrey Ryan/The Aspen Times

The MathCounts class meets every other day and has been preparing for the competition with practice tests and tests from past competitions.

“MathCounts is about how much you know about math, but it’s more about using logic to do it the fastest. It doesn’t matter if you’re in eighth grade or sixth grade because it’s using logic and math, which is how it’s different,” said Jack Diaz, one of the students who competed at the school competition.

According to Justin and Kieron, the environment during the competition was very quiet, but it wasn’t intimidating to either of them.

“It was kind of calming,” Kieron said.

“You’re just focused on what you’re doing,” said Justin.

The school’s MathCounts class is made up of eighth graders, but seventh grader Norah Glasgow attended the regional competition with the group.

“I was mainly just there to have fun,” she said, adding she did not find the competition very intimidating.

Ten students competed in the regional MathCounts competition in Grand Junction on Saturday, Feb. 25.
Audrey Ryan/The Aspen Times

The competition is comprised of four rounds: Sprint, Target, Team, and Countdown Round. In the Sprint Round, students have 40 minutes to complete 30 math problems. The Target Round focuses on problem-solving and mathematical reasoning; students get four pairs of problems and have six minutes to complete each. In the Team Round, which focuses on problem-solving and collaboration, students have 20 minutes to complete 10 math problems as a team.

The final round, called the Countdown, focuses on speed and accuracy. The top 10 individuals are ranked and compete against each other in a best two-out-of-three format, Kieron explained.

“I started at fifth and then the person in eighth moved all the way up to second and beat me, so I went down to sixth,” he said.

Coyle said schools where she previously taught had MathCounts programs, and she was happy to bring it to Aspen Middle School.

“It’s a different way to approach math. It’s not just a set from our curriculum,” she said. “There are questions from all different areas of math — algebra, probability, statistic, trigonometry — there are all sorts of ways that we don’t even think about that math affects our lives.”

Snow days lead to tweaks in Aspen school calendar for next year

The Aspen School Board is adding four instructional days to the 2023-24 school year calendar to make up for potential snow days.

Although the 2023-24 calendar was adopted last year, the calendar committee made the change due to the high number of snow days they have had during this school year, District Communications Specialist Monica Mendoza said.

The calendar committee is made up of representatives from each school, a representative from the International Baccalaureate program, Superintendent Dave Baugh, Assistant Superintendent Tharyn Mulberry, and one of the school-board members.

In addition to the four days added to the calendar, the school board voted to eliminate three professional development days and replace them with six early release days on Sept. 27, Dec. 13, Jan. 24, Feb. 28, April 24, and May 22.

Spring break was reduced by one day, and spring conferences were eliminated, as well.

This totals to 173 instructional days for the 2023-24 school year, compared to 170 days in the current school year.

“This brings us into alignment with another school district in the county and allows us to fall into better alignment with the other districts in the Roaring Fork Valley,” Baugh said.

Board Assistant Secretary and Assistant Treasurer Katy Frisch brought up a concern with cancelling spring conferences because they are a time for high-school students to discuss picking their schedules for the next school year.

Baugh said they will circle back to the high school and ensure there is a smooth course selection process for the next year.

“It might just be a note from a teach in a subject area to the parent and the student on what (the teacher’s) recommendation is,” Frisch said.

The board asked for the total hours of instruction and the start and finish times to be added to the calendar document, along with noting the date of high-school graduation.

Two proposed 2024-25 school year calendars were also reviewed by the board, which Mendoza said will be presented for approval next month. The calendar committee has two proposed calendars in the work — Calendar A and Calendar B.

According to Baugh, the largest differences between the calendars are the start and finish dates for the school year. Calendar A proposes starting school on Aug. 15, and Calendar B proposes starting on Aug. 7.

“It also aligns with Roaring Fork (School District); it’s better for our IB programming, and it allows students to finish their final exams before the winter holidays,” he said.

Both calendars would have more instructional days than previous years. Calendar A would have 176 instructional days and Calendar B would have 175.

A change to the current school-year calendar, which would eliminate a professional development day for Aspen High School, was also approved by the board. The May 30 professional development day will now be an instructional day to make up for the closure of the high school on Feb. 8 due to a potential gas leak. The professional development day will remain for the middle school and elementary school.

Kids prepare the main ingredient for Empty Bowls fundraiser Wednesday

There are brightly colored bowls overflowing boxes and lining the tables of Aspen Middle School art teacher Rae Lampe’s classroom as she prepares for her 19th year of Empty Bowls.

“It’s an incredible project we do,” Lampe said.

The event returns to Buttermilk Mountain Lodge, formerly known as Bumps, Wednesday afternoon for all community members who want soup, bread, dessert and a hand-crafted bowl to take home. The cost of a meal is a $10 donation, and all proceeds go to regional non-profit food pantry Lift Up.

Empty Bowls returns to Buttermilk Mountain Lodge at 5-7 p.m. Wednesday.
Audrey Ryan/The Aspen Times

The bowls are hand molded and painted by Aspen middle schoolers and students at Aspen Community School. Each of the hundreds of bowls is different and reflects the creativity of the students who created them.

For Lampe’s students, Empty Bowls is more than just an art project. It’s also an opportunity to teach her students about food distribution across the globe.

“It’s not just make a bowl and raise some money,” she said.

Lampe has a whole curriculum that goes with making the bowls, including a game involving candy.

“I divide (students) into countries and then I distribute M&Ms in the proportion of the amount of food that is consumed in that area,” Lampe said. “For example, Africa gets 13 M&Ms versus the United States getting 61. It has an impression.”

Students use a mold to shape each bowl into the right shape before firing it. Although many of the students want to write their names on their bowls so they can paint the one they shaped, Lampe has the bowls remain anonymous.

“Part of this is physically making something to give away,” she said, adding that the students gain a lot from painting something another student created because it builds a sense of community.

Lampe emphasized the importance she places in students using their hands in a time when so much is technological. Creating the bowls gives students a tangible way to see the impact they have on the world around them, she believes.

In addition to being a fundraiser and community event, Empty Bowls will generate no waste this year. Lampe thrifted hundreds of spoons from Aspen Thrift Store for this event. There will be a compost bin for food scraps and napkins, as well as a dishwashing station so people can take home clean bowls.

“We live in a valley that is so generous. They give us soup, bread and dessert. SkiCo gives us a place to host,” she said.

More than a dozen local restaurants are donating food for Empty Bowls, including the Caribou Club, Tasters, Paradise Bakery, Clark’s Market, Cache Cache, Home Team BBQ, Meat and Cheese, Big Wrap, Betula and Louis Swiss Bakery.

“Empty Bowls” is a nationwide initiative led by artists and craftspeople to raise funds for local food organizations and to bring greater awareness to hunger. After participants finish their meals, the bowls serve as a reminder that others still face empty bowls.

The vent poster states, “Participants leave with a full tummy, a bowl, a warm heart and a nourished soul.” which Lampe said they wrote a while ago but stays true to this day and is something she loves.

“I love the idea of actually making something with your hands to give back to the community,” she said.

If you go…

Where: Buttermilk Mountain Lodge, Base of Buttermilk

When: Wednesday,  5-7 p.m.

Cost: $10 for soup, bread, dessert and a handmade ceramic bowl


Another threatening call puts Aspen schools in ‘secure’ mode

Aspen School District went into “secure” status on Wednesday morning after receiving another threatening call.

At 9:30 a.m., law enforcement received a call with a similar message as the one that put the school into lockdown on Feb. 22, Aspen schools Communications Specialist Monica Mendoza said.

“Rather than locking down, we secured all buildings at the outside entrances while law enforcement cleared the campus,” she said.

“Secure,” or lockout, status means students and staff remain in the buildings, and exterior doors are locked, according to the Standard Response Protocol Aspen schools follow. Lockouts occur as a precautionary measure due to a suspected and/or immediate threat or hazard outside the building. Class resumes as normal, and the main entries to the buildings are monitored.

At the town-hall style safety discussion on Feb. 23 following the previous day’s lockdown, Pitkin County Sheriff Michael Buglione said if the swatting event were to happen again, law enforcement would respond in the same way. However, the schools went into “secure” rather than lockdown this time around.

An email went out to parents from the school district at 9:48 a.m. informing them of “secure” status.

“Parents please DO NOT come to campus. We will provide updates every 30 minutes,” the email stated in both English and Spanish. Notifications being sent in only English was a concern one student brought up at the town hall-style safety discussion.

Once the school received an “all clear,” activities resumed as normal, Mendoza said. Officers remained on campus for the remainder of the day to keep a sense of “situational awareness.”

After last week’s lockdown, the district and law enforcement identified communication as their No. 1 priority for improvement, which she said she believes they improved on this time around.

A PitkinAlert message went out at 10:07 a.m. informing the community the schools were in “secure” mode. It also stated law enforcement was present at Basalt schools, but classes were running as normal there.

Another PitkinAlert at 10:44 a.m. stated there was no threat at the Aspen schools, and schools were released to normal business. Law enforcement remained on campus throughout the day.

Much like last week, other Colorado schools were placed on “secure” due to swatting threats. According to The Denver Post, Boulder High School and Pennock Elementary School in Brighton were affected by swatting calls in addition to Aspen School District.

Colorado is not the only state receiving these phone calls. A report from EducationWeek says schools in California, Michigan, and Vermont have also been disrupted by swatting phone calls. Another report from Rochester’s News-Talk says an elementary school in Austin, Minnesota, went into lockdown on Monday morning as a result of a false report of an active shooter. According to the report, gunshots were believed to have been heard in the background of the emergency call.

Communication at the forefront of improvements for Aspen School District during lockdown

Emotions ran high Thursday evening at the town hall-style safety discussion at the Aspen District Theatre as parents, guardians, and community members expressed concern about communication during the campus-wide lockdown Wednesday morning.

The meeting gave parents and guardians a chance to ask questions of law enforcement, city officials, and school-district officials who were involved with the incident.

Although the majority of the questions were about communication, which the district acknowledged needed improvement, everyone who had the chance to speak started off by thanking law enforcement for their quick response to what turned out to be one of at least a dozen prank calls across the state threatening violence on school grounds.

“We know (communication) is a shortfall. We’ve been debriefing regularly across the departments now, and there’s a concrete plan moving forward for getting you as much authentic, real information in real time as fast as possible,” Aspen Schools Superintendent Dave Baugh said.

Law enforcement, school officials, school board members and city officials answer questions from the community Thursday evening.
Audrey Ryan/The Aspen Times

Communication to parents, guardians, and the communities is a joint effort from law enforcement and the school district. Although the district had crafted messages and was ready to send them, Baugh said they were getting mixed messages on whether to send or hold messages.

“It was a very confusing situation,” he said.

The “swatting” call came into Pitkin County Regional Emergency Dispatch Center at 8:25 a.m., and School Resource Officer Alyse Vollmer said she initiated lockdown at 8:27. The first message from the district went out at 8:30, Baugh said.

Pitkin County Undersheriff Alex Burchetta said the Sheriff’s Office’s initial response was to get to the scene as quickly and safely as they could to protect students and staff.

“Obviously, communication is a tremendous part of that because we want to get out what is going on, so that the community can can know, can feel safe, that their kids or their loved ones that are working here are safe and being taken care of,” he said. “There’s an investigative component that goes along with this. We didn’t have a lot of information except for what we were told by the initial phone call.”

The initial phone call came from someone claiming to be “walking into the school to shoot all of the kids,” Burchetta said in a media briefing Wednesday afternoon. The dispatcher who took the call also heard what sounded like gunshots fired in the background.

The first public communication from the Sheriff’s Office came from their Facebook page, where the post stated: “Local law-enforcement agencies are responding to the Aspen School District for unconfirmed reports of shots fired at the Aspen Elementary School.”

With communication at the forefront of law-enforcement and district-official’s minds, Baugh said, the district has a messaging plan developing and hopes to implement them within the next week. Going forward, messaging will come out through email and text every half hour if there is another situation like this.

“We’re really hoping yesterday’s was it, but we don’t believe hope is a plan,” he said. “We’re preparing to get it out by the texting process. We’re also working through county services to set up a direct communication line across schools.”

Pitkin Alert will continue to play a role in getting messaging out to the community, Burchetta said.

“We will also collaborate with the school district in their messaging, so if they’re sending out a certain message, we will mirror that message on Pitkin Alert,” he said, adding that now is a good time to make sure to sign up for Pitkin Alert.

The Aspen School District now has a new communications person, Monica Mendoza, who was forced to meet many of the city, county, and police communications people in a snowstorm during the lockdown. However, all the different communications people are now cooperating, so unified messaging can happen, Baugh said.

When in these situations, he said, messages will grow and be more flushed out as time passes. However, straight out of the gate, communication can state only basic information.

“We are in lockdown. Please do not visit the campus while we are handling the situation,” he said the initial messaging will be.

One parent asked if the FBI had made any progress in their investigation because their fear is not only about the security of the school, but also the “potential impact on the mental health of teachers and kids.”

Burchetta said they are cooperating with the FBI as one of the 10 jurisdictions in the state that were impacted by the swatting event, which has gained national attention from the FBI’s standpoint.

“All I can say right now is that the origin of the call was international,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean anything with virtual private networks (VPNs). … You can spoof your location using a simple technology that is available to anyone.”

One high-school student who attended the meeting asked what the district’s plan was to make students feel safer while at school.

“The school board has invested almost $6 million in technology upgrades and cameras,” Baugh replied, adding they are also finishing improvements on the doors that allow high access for responding officers.

He said they would like to open a dialogue among students, staff, and district officials to take in the students’ point of view in these situations and offer them a chance to voice concerns.

Pitkin County Sheriff Michael Buglione shared some statistics about Wednesday’s lockdown. According to his report, School Resource Officer Cameron Daniels was at the elementary school less than 20 seconds after the call, and Aspen Police were there within 67 seconds.

As for resources, Buglione said the Sheriff’s Office had 12 deputies on scene, Aspen police had 15 officers on the scene, Snowmass Police had four officers on the scene, Basalt police had one officer on the scene, and Colorado State Patrol showed up with four. They also had 27 medics with nine ambulances from Aspen, Basalt, and Carbondale, 26 Aspen firefighters with nine pieces of apparatus, and there were six dispatchers assigned to the call.

“Shots fired at the elementary school,” Buglione said and paused. “It’s hard. We responded, everybody responded, smoothly, beautifully, as they are trained to do.”

AHS graduation returns to music tent; students told to strive to ‘be better’

Valedictorian Gemma Hill, sporting a comfortable onesie in a nod to their remote learning days during the pandemic, talks during the Aspen High School graduation ceremony on Saturday, June 4, 2022, inside the Benedict Music Tent in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

With a gesture to the seniors seated behind him, Chris Keleher decided to break the No. 1 classroom rule, which is to never turn your back on the students.

But he did so without fear of a spitball or a few passed notes — or whatever kids do these days when the teacher isn’t looking — to share a few words of wisdom, from one departing Skier to the nearly 140 more waiting to receive their diploma.

“Before I really begin, I’m Irish, so there is a real chance I just burst out into tears at any moment. I could also get into a fist fight,” Keleher said to laughter from the crowd that packed the Benedict Music Tent on Saturday morning for Aspen High School’s Class of 2022 graduation ceremony. “I remember every word that was spoken at my own graduation way back in 1986, except for what was actually said. I don’t even remember who spoke.”

Keleher, the homegrown AHS student turned teacher and cross country coach who did find out that noted ski racer Jimmie Heuga spoke at his own graduation, was this year’s commencement speaker. The ceremony signaled an end to the seniors’ time as students in Aspen, but also to Keleher’s 23 years as an educator with retirement on his doorstep.

He reflected back on lessons learned from his own cross country coach and the idea to “be better” in all aspects of life, and how Aspen’s core philosophy of blending mind, body and spirit has inherently embraced that very concept.

“Being No. 1 is awesome, but very few of us will ever get the chance to be No. 1 at anything. You don’t have to be No. 1, just be better,” Keleher said. “Whatever your direction and drive, I hope your greatest value comes not from the size of your paycheck, but from the satisfaction of fighting the good fight and giving back to the community. Just be better.”

While this year’s graduating class bookended its time at AHS with two relatively normal years, their sophomore and junior years were overshadowed by the pandemic. Saturday’s ceremony was a major step toward a return to normalcy with its return to the Benedict Music Tent for the first time since 2019.

Because of the pandemic, the 2020 graduation ceremony was held in the parking lot at Buttermilk Ski Area, and the 2021 ceremony was held outside on the turf field on the Aspen School District campus.

Commencement speaker Chris Keleher takes in the moment during the Aspen High School graduation ceremony on Saturday, June 4, 2022, inside the Benedict Music Tent in Aspen. Keleher, a longtime teacher and coach, is among those retiring this year.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

“This graduation is perhaps very different from any that have gone before it,” Superintendent David Baugh said during his introduction. “This class is also very different from any that have gone before. They have survived a pandemic, continued to learn and thrive, and for this we are very, very thankful.”

The roughly 1 hour and 40 minute ceremony included a return of live musical performances from the students — including a solo act by Emma Boucher singing Taylor Swift’s “New Year’s Day” — and traditional speeches from the valedictorian and salutatorian.

Traditional, however, didn’t quite define valedictorian Gemma Hill’s wardrobe choice when she took off her gown to reveal a comfortable-looking onesie, something she said was a nod to the nearly two years spent learning from home during the pandemic.

“This town has fostered us to grow into compassionate young adults. It has taught us lessons of life, from frostbite to close encounters with bears and dangerous climbs,” said Hill, who will attend UCLA to study neuroscience, during her speech. “Growing up in this town has given us the tools necessary to take the world by storm, because I think we can all agree it’s a very specific student that exits Aspen. They are filled with grit, determination and a healthy relationship with a wildly unrealistic amount of discomfort.”

For Hill, this discomfort was getting up at 5 a.m. each day for swim practice — which she said was mostly to watch Class 3A swimmer of the year and fellow senior Kayla Tehrani lap her in the pool — part of that “be better” mentality this year’s graduating class has little issue embracing.

Salutatorian Laila Khan-Farooqi, a future Duke student who will study computational biology and bioinformatics, had a similar message as Keleher in that life isn’t all about being No. 1. She, like Hill, was part of the Aspen girls swim team and was there when it finished second at state when she was a sophomore.

Khan-Farooqi told her classmates that not finishing first isn’t the same as failing.

“As your salutatorian, this means I’m speaking today as the first loser in the race for highest GPA,” Khan-Farooqi jested before reflecting on her time with the swim team. “I will say, I’m very good at being first loser. But this was in no way a failure. We lost to a team with six times the number of competitors we had and each person on our five-woman team swam personal bests in their individual events. How could this possibly be classified as a failure? A loss maybe, but a failure? Not in the slightest.”

Most of the awards and scholarships the students received were announced at the AHS senior awards ceremony on Thursday night. The final tally included approximately $380,000 across 148 individual scholarships. According to Susanne Morrison, one of the school’s administrative coordinators, around 86% of the graduates have plans to attend a four-year college in one of at least 32 states and six countries.

“As our nation and our world continues to be in various stages of unrest, it is your generation and your class who has the power, talent and, dare I say it, rich opportunity to set us all on a new path, a better path,” said AHS Principal Sarah Strassburger. “A path that mirrors what I saw every day in the halls of Aspen High School this year: smart, compassionate, engaged and vocal students who stand up for what they believe, treat others with decency and respect, and are not afraid to challenge the status quo — or me.”

Caps are tossed into the air at the conclusion of the Aspen High School graduation ceremony on Saturday, June 4, 2022, inside the Benedict Music Tent in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

This year’s senior class helped pave the way for three state championships in athletics in 2021-22 — boys golf, dance and boys basketball — with Lucas Lee having been the lone athlete to have been part of two of those. Lee received the loudest cheers when he walked across the stage to get his diploma, a remarkable feat considering he lost both of his parents during the school year.

Lee joined Lindsey Heinecken at the very end to lead the tassel change, marking the students as graduates, before the caps were removed and sent skyward toward the music tent’s cavernous ceiling.

“You have it within you, each of you, to be better with everything you do. Be passionate about what you do. Whatever you do, do it with conviction,” Keleher said, making note of his long-held desire to one day become an astronaut. “Don’t negotiate for mediocrity. You don’t have to be No. 1, you don’t have to be perfect, just be better. Though, if one of you becomes an astronaut, do whatever you can to get me a seat. Window or aisle, that would be perfect.”


Guest commentary: Safety a top priority at Aspen schools

Last week’s horrific school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, has not only gripped our nation but has sent shockwaves throughout our local community. Our Aspen School District administrators, board, teachers and staff mourn the tragic and senseless loss of 19 innocent children and two beloved teachers. Our hearts go out to the victims’ families as they process this unthinkable violent massacre.

Many of you have expressed your sorrow and dismay to us. This latest incident has hit all of us very hard, particularly in light of other mass shootings that our nation has experienced in recent years. Incomprehensibly, since 2000, there have been more than 600 shootings resulting in death or injury at elementary and secondary schools around the country.

More than ever, it is important for us to come together in our grief to support each other and to focus on moving forward in a constructive manner. As always, the safety and well-being of our students must be our top priority. As parents and educators, we all share the same pain and stress, and we worry more than ever about the safety of our own children and students.

Sadly, this is not a new worry, and we cannot labor under the assumption that Aspen is somehow immune from these risks. When it comes to safety and security concerns across our campus, ASD has been laser-focused on this issue for a very long time. In fact, in 2020, the community resoundingly supported a bond referendum that allocates significant funding for many necessary facility upgrades, including security infrastructure.

We have detailed and comprehensive plans in place for every known safety contingency, developed with the aid and expertise of outside security consultants, to assure that our plans and readiness are state-of-the-art and optimized for successful outcomes. We spare no effort or expense in this regard.

Below are just a few examples of the current protocols in place to address safety and security measures on campus and in the schools. Further enhancements are scheduled to be completed this summer.

— School resource officers (SROs) are located in each school building. These law enforcement officers are armed and active members of the Aspen Police Department and the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office.

— Schools have increased the use of drills with students, teachers and staff. The drills assist everyone in knowing what to do in a variety of crisis situations. The drills include lockouts, lockdowns, evacuations and shelters.

— The Aspen School District requires all employees to wear photo ID badges while on campus. First responders need to know who belongs and who doesn’t belong on campus in a time of crisis.

— Schools require all visitors to check in at the front office. A new identification system has been implemented in all the schools that provides immediate feedback if the person visiting could be a potential risk to the school.

— Established teams address safety and security issues: The district-wide Safety Committee and the School Crisis Teams meet regularly to review and recommend updates to the crisis management plans/emergency management plans in order to maintain safety and security throughout our schools and campus.

— It is the goal of the district that all of our staff be trained in first aid and CPR. While that requirement was paused during COVID due to social distancing protocols, we expect to be in full compliance.

— At the recommendation of law enforcement, the district has added security cameras to the campus and schools in order to provide a more protected and safe learning environment.

— School doors are routinely checked, and access to outsiders is restricted to certain entry points.

— Regular ongoing trainings are provided for teachers and staff consistent with standard response protocols to prepare them to deal with a potential crisis situation.

We care deeply about the health and wellness of each of our students, staff, and families — both physically and emotionally. We are cognizant of the need for enhanced mental health services to support our community whether it be to deal with the grief of mass shootings or the struggles and challenges that many of us contend with in our everyday lives. In addition to our experienced in-house counselors and psychologists, multiple community resources are available to us, including but not limited to:

— Aspen Family Connections, https://www.aspenfamilyconnections.org

—Aspen Hope Center, https://www.aspenhopecenter.org

— Aspen Strong, https://aspenstrong.org

— Mind Springs Health, https://www.mindspringshealth.org

Even with the best safety and security protocols in place, we still need to rely on you and our community at large to be observant and watchful. In that regard, we want to remind you of a critical resource already in place: Safe2Tell — https://safe2tell.org.

You can anonymously report anything that concerns or threatens you, your family, or our schools, 24/7, online, or by phone at 877-542-7233. Law enforcement and school officials will be instantly alerted to your report so that they can take appropriate immediate action.

It’s an understatement to say that the past few years have presented us with unprecedented challenges and hardships. Our unique, caring community has bonded together and more than proven its ability to be resilient and mutually supportive. We are asking you to continue this critical partnership with ASD as we remain vigilant and resolute in protecting our most valuable asset — our children.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out to either one of us if you have any questions or suggestions.

Dave Baugh

Superintendent, dbaugh@aspenk12.net

Tharyn Mulberry

Assistant superintendent, tmulberry@aspenk12.net

Inside the Local Child Care Crisis

Dawn Ryan’s Aspen Mountain Tots pre-k students crowd around her outside of the Yellow Brick Building on their playground in Aspen on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Three classrooms in the Yellow Brick building in Aspen’s West End neighborhood have been filled with the sounds of preschool children playing, laughing and learning for three decades but come early June, they’ll be dark, quiet and void of any activity.

They’ve been occupied by Aspen Playgroup, a locally owned child care provider for 40-plus children. Playgroup will hold its final graduation on June 2 for kids who will attend kindergarten in the fall, followed by a community celebration to recognize all the children and their parents who have been through the program first started by Mary Wolfer — known affectionately as “Miss Mare” — in 1993.

That long tenure and tradition ends on Friday, June 3, when Wolfer’s niece, Kadi Kuhlenberg, who bought the business in 2016, closes the doors.

“This is all very emotional, I’ve been on the verge of a meltdown here for a while,” Kuhlenberg said while sitting outside the Yellow Brick the week before closing. “I’m in utter disbelief that I have seven more days with these kids and that part is really hard … knowing that I have a staff that loves it, the kids are so happy, so content.”

Politics at play

The decision to close is the result of a political impasse between Kuhlenberg and the city of Aspen, which owns the Yellow Brick building.

A citizen advisory board that oversees the city’s taxpayer-funded child care program, known as Kids First, decided last summer that Playgroup Aspen and another provider, Aspen Mountain Tots, must operate five days a week rather than the current four. The mandate is an effort to increase capacity in child care offerings.

The terms of their leases were changed in 2021 and were to take effect in September of 2023.

But after months of explaining to city officials that going to five days would not be financially feasible as more teachers would need to be hired, and it would create staff burnout and erode the quality of care, Kuhlenberg decided earlier this year to hang it up, citing unreasonable lease terms.

Aspen Mountain Tots’ Dawn Ryan sits on the porch in the playground at the Yellow Brick Building on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Dawn Ryan, owner and director of Aspen Mountain Tots, announced in March that she will close one of her classrooms that serves toddlers effective Sept. 1.

Ryan will still offer 60 preschool slots but will not be increasing capacity as the city envisioned. Aspen Mountain Tots has pre-enrolled the 2023 school year but will not enroll a new child from the community until 2024. She will then wean enrollment over the next four years when she plans to close her doors permanently.

“The last 11 months have been a sad and lonely place,” she said. “When Playgroup closes and moves on it will become even lonelier.”

Both Kuhlenberg and Ryan argued that going to five days a week does not increase capacity, and the Kids First Advisory Board and city officials continue to ignore that fact.

Playgroup Aspen’s Kadi Kuhlenberg outside of the Yellow Brick Building in Aspen on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

“This would have resulted in zero additional families cared for,” Kuhlenberg said. “Our monthly capacity averages were not changing.”

And as noted by Ryan in her March 4 letter to the Kids First Advisory Board, “(Aspen Mountain Tots) currently serves the required 30 toddler and 60 preschool slots per week. Adding another day will not increase capacity. It might lift a burden for one or two of our families, but it will not increase the capacity for the community.”

The Kids First Advisory Board and city officials don’t agree, said Assistant City Manager Diane Foster.

“I believe in a couple of years it will benefit the community to have increased capacity,” she said. “It’s a 20% increase in capacity and in a five-day week, having one day not empty in a facility that’s right in the middle of Aspen is the goal.”

For at least the summer and possibly the fall, the three classrooms occupied by Playgroup Aspen will sit empty as the city continues to look for a new provider.

No bidders, no workers

The city in March issued a request for proposals from licensed child care providers in the Roaring Fork Valley interested in operating the three classrooms at the Yellow Brick occupied by Playgroup Aspen.

No bids came in, which forced city officials to issue a new RFP and post it on BidNet, a national bidding platform for governments.

Proposal packages are due by June 9 and an announcement on a new provider is expected June 16, though no one will be occupying the space until at least the fall, Foster acknowledged.

“It might look bad for a while,” she said. “I thought we would have a provider before this and I was wrong so there may be going back to the drawing board on June 9 if we don’t get any responses.”

Nationally, there is a shortage in the early childhood education workforce with the average wage for a teacher at $20 an hour.

(Chalkbeat Colorado/Aspen Times archive)

Add the lack of housing and the high cost of living in the Roaring Fork Valley and it’s virtually impossible to hire low-paid teachers here.

“Every day I wake up and wonder if I have to shut classrooms down,” said Leslie Bixel, executive director of the nonprofit Early Learning Center, a child care provider in the Yellow Brick that has almost 100 kids from ages 8 weeks old to 6 years old.

Three teachers recently resigned and Bixel has been desperately looking to hire more since November; 17 staff members have left since 2021.

She said if she was in Kuhlenberg and Ryan’s shoes, she would shut down also.

“Those two programs are run by owner-directors who are teachers and they can’t be working 50 and 60 hours a week and then be able to provide high-quality care,” Bixel said.

Aspen Mountain Tots and Playgroup Aspen accept rent subsidies from the city but no cash incentives, according to Kuhlenberg and Ryan.

They said they take issue with the city offering almost $77,000 in incentives for a new provider in the RFP.

Foster said those are start-up costs that wouldn’t be available otherwise to an existing business.

From parents’ lips

The Yellow Brick Building at pick-up time. (Aspen Times archive)

Beyond the differing viewpoints, bureaucracy and politics, there are dozens of children and their families who are being affected by the inability for the city and the current child care providers to find common ground.

Playgroup’s closure displaces over 40 children and their families that will have to readjust their lives and routines.

Chelsea Dillon, a mother of a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, said it was stressful when she learned she’d have to find a new child care provider.

She landed her older child at Wildwood School, but said her children will miss their friends at Playgroup, along with their teachers who they have bonded with.

“It’s just crazy to us to get rid of two successful programs that our kids loved without anything being put in there,” Dillon said, adding she will keep her 2-year-old at home this summer. “We’re very excited but I think it’s how the city went about it. … They wanted to fix a crisis and they made a bigger crisis.”

Playgroup Aspen’s previous graduating classes hang in the hallway of the Yellow Brick Building on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Aspen resident Anna Zane, whose 4-year-old daughter attends Playgroup — as did all of her siblings and Zane herself under Miss Mare — said it’s an emotional move to put her youngest child at the Little Red School House in Snowmass, where she will now have to drive every day rather than riding her bike to the Yellow Brick.

“It’s a devastating blow to lose this asset for so many years due to a bureaucratic squabble,” she said. “It’s so insulting to really the entire community of Aspen and the short-sightedness of this is so infuriating and their vision is so grandiose that they know better.”

Child care providers within the Yellow Brick said they wished those on the Kids First board and in City Hall had understood the industry better before making such big decisions affecting their livelihoods and so many parents and kids’ lives.

“People who don’t know anything about early childhood education need to be more open” to ideas and suggestions, Bixel said. “I don’t know how they are going to dig themselves out of this, they’ve gone down such a dark path and what they’ve done is irreversible.”

She, along with Kuhlenberg and Ryan, as well as dozens of parents have spoken at Kids First Advisory board meetings since last July in an attempt to convince its members to reconsider their position.

“I think what has been most upsetting is that it didn’t have to happen, and for anyone who was operating in good faith and with an open mind, it became clear early on in the discussions that it didn’t have to happen,” said Playgroup parent Victoria Stevenson. “In my mind, the upside of adding a fifth day was about two additional spots per class, but the downside was shutting two long-standing businesses down and starting from scratch.”

Stevenson added: ”Kids First made it clear though, by the second conversation, that they weren’t really interested in the conversation we were trying to have and it wasn’t going to be a back and forth and they weren’t going to be answering those questions. I never got an answer on how many new spots they thought they were adding.”

Dillon said she applied to be on the Kids First Advisory Board and was interviewed by Aspen City Council but never heard back from anyone.

Samantha Daniels, co-director at Playgroup Aspen and a mother who has two children enrolled there, said she will be placing them at the Little Red School House.

Daniels said there was enough room at the Little Red School House that her kids’ friends in Playgroup also will attend there.

All three mothers said they’ll miss having that long-time local presence and reputation that only a provider of three decades can offer.

Kuhlenberg said she feels strongly about that as well.

“It just feels like we are being treated as entirely disposable,” she said. “They are not considering what this is doing to us individually, to our families, to these kids and they’ve ignored the personal aspect of this decision when the basis of this business and this industry is relationships and people and supporting families and that’s the failure.”

Filling capacity?

The decision by the Kids First Advisory Board to maximize the rooms at the Yellow Brick is following direction of City Council, which in 2021 made increasing child care capacity one of its priorities.

City officials recognize that without access to affordable child care, parents cannot contribute to the local workforce and economy.

But the fact that nearly all the kids in Playgroup Aspen have been placed, the capacity issue seems to a be red herring, according to Kuhlenberg.

The RFP for a new child care provider, which was amended to add a fourth classroom in anticipation of Ryan closing the toddler room, requires a year-round schedule, five days a week and a minimum of eight hours a day, as well as a plan for additional services for working families on Saturday, Sunday or holidays.

Children with Aspen Mountain Tots play on the Yellow Brick Childcare Playground in Aspen on a cold morning on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The city’s estimate — based on a recent update of the waitlists of Aspen-area providers — is that parents of over 400 children in the valley are unable to enroll in an early childhood education program.

In response, the city is planning to build an eight-classroom facility in the third phase of Burlingame Ranch, a municipal government-built subdivision of deed-restricted housing across from Buttermilk Mountain.

The facility would serve roughly 100 children ranging from infants to preschool and is estimated to cost between $10 million and $15 million.

City Manager Sara Ott was in Washington D.C. last month lobbying U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper (D-Colorado) for $2 million in federal funding toward the Burlingame facility.

“We are optimistic since there is only one other (child care facility) request in the state,” Ott said.

Ott estimates with just under $6 million in funding from Kids First revenue, there is a $3.25 million gap, if she’s projecting on the lower end of the final price tag.

The city is also considering private partners, like area employers who might want to contribute toward their employees’ benefits.

Warren Klug reading to pre-k children at the Yellow Brick in Aspen on May 30, 2018, for the "Read With Me" event put on by Kids First. (Aspen Times archive)

The current schedule calls for construction drawings to be completed by the spring of 2023 and site preparation would begin in the fall of next year.

“We are working on a capital campaign and that very much includes partners,” Foster said.

The city also plans to set aside up to four affordable housing units adjacent to the facility for early childhood educators.

The city in January hired a Denver-based consultant, Kate Kalstein, for $35,000 to help it plan for the Burlingame facility, as well as assess capacity and build support for child care in the upper valley with potential partners.

She is expected to present a report to the Kids First Advisory Board at the end of June.

There are other child care facilities being planned in the midvalley as hundreds of more residential development are being built.

Some who work in the industry question why a regional approach isn’t being taken to assess how much brick and mortar is needed and how those facilities will be staffed.

CMC facility still in its infancy

The city has been trying to find a licensed childcare provider to run an infant childcare business with space for eight children at Colorado Mountain College’s Aspen campus for more than a year.

And while the city already has spent tens of thousands of dollars to build a room to accommodate such a business, officials have realized that it’s going to take more investment.

Earlier this year, City Council approved a $250,000 expenditure to contract with someone willing to run the infant care center, as well as pay for furniture, fixtures and equipment.

“Because it’s a single infant room, which is a harder business model, the city has allocated some funding that we can go above and beyond what we would normally do,” Foster said. “It’s a venture capital model in which we provide funding that we wouldn’t normally provide.”

A taxing proposition for the community

City voters in 1989 passed a 0.45% sales tax, of which 55% goes to the Kids First program and the remaining amount toward affordable housing.

The tax, which was renewed by voters in 2008 and runs through 2040, has generated $34.9 million since 1994, which is as far back as the city’s financial system tracks.

Generating just under $2 million a year, most of the revenue is spent on financial aid for families, tuition buydowns and other subsidies, as well as support for the program like quality improvement efforts and resource teachers.

Current providers in the Yellow Brick said more money should be invested into the retention and recruitment of early childhood educators.

“We are missing the entire next generation of providers,” Kuhlenberg said. “We don’t have them to step in and fill these programs because there hasn’t been the support to get there and the young providers that have watched it don’t want to step into it because of the stress and difficulty that we’ve faced and instead of being supported by our local support agency it’s been almost the opposite.”

Genevieve Crowley and Zachory Beaudette walk across the balance beam together during outside time at Little Blue Preschool in Carbondale. (Chelsea Self/Post Independent)

Ryan said when she signed her lease in 2010 to operate Mountain Tots in the Yellow Brick it basically read, “care for children and pay your rent.”

“Now with multiple pages of the RFP reading like a novel, I am no longer able to meet the city’s needs,” she said. “Even people with the best intentions are influenced by their own desires.

“The city has good intentions influenced by their own ideas and they are entitled to that,” Ryan continued. “I just don’t have to be the one to carry that burden of their dream so I am getting out of their way, phasing out my program so that they can bring in their new providers that they are confident are waiting in the wings and together they can fulfill the next phase of that dream.”

Aspen School District, Education Association approve agreement for new pay schedules

The Aspen School District Board of Education unanimously approved an agreement with the Aspen Education Association teachers union on Wednesday night that will introduce new salary schedules aimed at increasing salaries for many staff and leveling the scales of pay equity.

“I think it just changes a lot of lives, and we’ve heard from a lot of teachers who really appreciate it,” said Aspen Education Association President Stephanie Nixon.

Aspen Education Association membership ratified the agreement at 6 p.m. Tuesday with 105 yes votes and three no votes, Nixon told the board. The association has about 165 members, Nixon said. The ratified agreement is effective July 1.

The agreement includes four new salary schedules with the following starting pay: one for certified staff like teachers at $50,000, one for support services providers at $54,000, one for salaried education support professionals at $40,000 (with most starting salaries for positions on that scale starting at $55,000 or $57,000) and one for hourly education support professionals at $21 per hour. Substitute pay will also increase.

“In total, we’re probably spending around $2 million, including benefits” to accommodate for the pay increases in the new salary schedules, Chief Financial Officer Linda Warhoe said.

The salary schedules for certified staff and support services providers are based on the years of service as well as education attained. The salary schedules for education support professionals are based only on years of service, but those staff are eligible for annual stipends based on the highest degree earned.

The agreement also includes a detailed supplemental pay schedule of stipends and additional compensation staff can earn for certifications and extra service to the district, like mentoring another teacher or coaching a school team.

Much of that supplemental pay used to be baked into a district employee’s base pay but will now be itemized. That change will not affect how the earned income factors into retirement savings, according to Nixon and district human resources director Amy Littlejohn.

District officials emphasized that the goal was equitable pay raises to level the scales (rather than equal, across-the-board ones).

The district worked with a human resources firm to conduct a salary study that found that about half of district staff were making more than the market rate and half of them were making below it, with significant variance in that range, according to Littlejohn and Superintendent David Baugh.

Roughly seven employees in the entire district had pay on par with market rate, Littlejohn said.

“I think every single employee was on a different pay rate,” Nixon said.

The new salary schedule is universal, meaning the base pay won’t change based on favoritism or other arbitrary factors, according to Baugh.

According to Nixon, the district shifted away from a standardized pay scale in the 2017-18 school year. Baugh said he believed that was “one of the worst things that ever happened to this district.”

“Nobody knew where they were,” Baugh said. “You had a pay scale replacement, sort of, but there’s huge variation in there.”

Littlejohn described the new schedule as a “level playing field.” The focus on implementing pay equity now means that the new salary schedules won’t impact all employees in the same way, and some staff won’t see much of a pay increase at all because of how variable the pay rates were before.

Some staff are receiving a pay increase of less than $1,500; they will receive a one-time bonus equal to the difference between their raise and $1,500.

But other staffers could see pay raises in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars based on their degree and the “step” they are at on the schedule, as well as how close their base pay has been to the existing 2021-22 salary schedule the district posted online. (Steps represent “one full year of service equivalent to 10 or more months of full-time employment in a comparable role,” according to the proposed schedule.)

For instance, a teacher entering at step zero on the schedule with a bachelor’s degree would make a base pay of $50,000 according to the proposed 2022-23 salary schedule, up about 8.7% from the $46,000 they would have made according to a 2021-22 schedule. A teacher with a Ph.D. at step 10 on the salary schedule would make a base pay of $82,887 in the 2022-23 school year, up about 20.3% from $66,028 in 2021-22.

The proposed salary schedule also includes higher base pays for teachers who have a bachelor’s degree and up to 24 additional credits or a master’s degree plus up to 60 additional credits. Teachers with more than those maximum amounts of additional credits will not receive additional pay unless they get an additional degree.

That means a teacher with a master’s degree and, say, 100 additional credits, would be at the same base pay as a teacher with a master’s degree and 60 additional credits at the same step on the schedule.

That teacher with lots of extra educational credits would only move to the next column with higher pay scales if they got their Ph.D., Littlejohn said.

Also, moving forward, teachers must secure approval for additional credits earned beyond their degrees to ensure those credits are aligned with educational outcomes and what teachers are doing in the classroom, according to Baugh and Assistant Superintendent Tharyn Mulberry.

That extra-credit cap was a source of frustration for some staff like kindergarten teacher Lisa McGuire and first grade teacher Jill Pisani, who spoke during the public comment section of Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting.

Both teachers said they have poured time and energy into earning well over that 60-credit cap and would like to see compensation increases that reflect that work they put in. Pisani said that by her calculation, she would be getting a 1% raise and McGuire said she believed she would be “not even at the 1% — I’m at the 0%” based on what she currently makes compared with the new schedule.

Nixon acknowledged that frustration while also noting that the aim of this work was to level the scales, not put the existing scale on a new shelf.

“We had to make it right,” Nixon said. “And you know, it is difficult because you are seeing people that are not going to get as much as other people. … It’s not that you’re not valued, it’s just that we had to make it right for so many other people.”


The new agreement was the result of “extensive negotiations over many hours and many days,” Baugh said.

“I will say it was a very collaborative process,” he added. “Each team pushed the other.”

Those teams included representation from both the district offices and the Aspen Education association.

Aspen Education Association

Stephanie Nixon (president), Marnie White (vice president), Josh Anderson, Dana Berro, Bente Doolan, Ada Friedman, Malia Kelly, Tonie Richards and SkiCountry UniServ Director Eric Hansen.

Aspen School District

David Baugh (superintendent), Tharyn Mulberry (assistant superintendent), Amy Littlejohn, (human resources director), Amy Kendziorski (Aspen Middle School principal) and Linda Warhoe (chief financial officer).