In the past, the Aspen School District has been top rated on state and national reviews. Along with academics, it’s known for innovative extra curricular programming and high rates of graduates going on to college. But this year, the board of education received a report card of its own that shows some concern coming from community members, staff and parents.
The Colorado Department of Education has a five-tier accreditation scale. The Aspen School District moved down a notch in the 2016-17 school year. It’s a nuanced rating system, based on state test scores, participation rates in those tests and graduation rates. The tests have changed over the years, but if you look at where the Aspen School District stands up against others, it’s slipping.
These ratings are of concern to the District Accountability Committee, a state mandated group tasked with making recommendations to the school board regarding budget, academics and long term planning. The volunteer committee, made up of teachers, parents and community members is known as the DAC for short.
“The DAC’s trying to look at it from a perspective of what are the percentage of students who are meeting or exceeding expectations,” said Jonathan Nickell, vice president of the accountability committee and a candidate in the current school board race. “We are kind of taking a step back and saying, 'Well, how are other schools doing in this environment?' And what we are seeing is Aspen School District is falling behind.”
Nickell and his colleagues submitted their concerns about the district’s academics to the school board last spring. The DAC inspected the district’s budget and discovered there has been a significant increase in spending.
“The big take away is, the $6 million in total that spending has increased, over half of that has gone to these district-wide expenditures. And research has shown that the biggest bang for your buck in a lot of these initiatives is in investing, developing and making sure you have great classroom teachers,” said Nickell.
Susan Marolt has just finished her first four-year-term with the board of education and is also a candidate this fall. She said the board is already working on the question of teacher salaries and addressing underperforming math scores.
In a written response to the DAC’s recommendations, the board said the committee is working outside their bounds. The two groups are now having meetings to discuss that.
“I don't think we are all in agreement about what their role is and what the outcome will be of the work that they do,” said Marolt.
But that response is frustrating to members of the accountability committee, who believe they have brought up legitimate concerns about academics in the Aspen School District, and about the portion of the budget that is being spent outside of the classroom.
“I think that some of our recommendations were met with skepticism, resistance, unfortunately. We’ve just kind of been waiting for the board to come back to us and say, 'Here is the information that's correct or wrong.' We haven't received that yet,” said DAC president Anna Zane.
Zane and Nickell felt the response from the board was focused on communication instead of education.
“We all have the same goal in mind and that's to have the best schools in the state, if not the nation. So I’d say we are disappointed with how the board took our recommendations,” Zane said.
This fall, Aspen Public Radio is exploring the academic achievements, workplace environment and leadership style at the Aspen School District. This is the first episode in that series.