January 30, 2015

Roaring Fork school contracts still in dispute

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Rob Stein, assistant superintendent and chief academic officer of the Roaring Fork district, will receive $130,000 per year until mid-2017, when he will replace Diana Sirko as district superintendent.

Christina Capasso/Aspen Journalism

Rob Stein, assistant superintendent and chief academic officer of the Roaring Fork district, will receive $130,000 per year until mid-2017, when he will replace Diana Sirko as district superintendent.

BASALT — The Board of Education wants both Diana Sirko and Rob Stein, but a vocal group of parents continues to push for Stein only.

A strange mix of politics and policy is playing out in the Roaring Fork School District, as the district’s governing board negotiates new employment contracts with its top administrators. Last month, when board members announced their intent to retain Sirko as district superintendent for another two years, to be followed by Stein, the assistant superintendent, for the subsequent three years, board members thought they’d found a good way to keep a “dream team” of leaders in place.

But Wednesday evening, as they gathered at Basalt High School to discuss draft contracts with Sirko, Stein and Chief Financial Officer Shannon Pelland, board members were confronted with a barrage of advice, criticism and concern from parents during the meeting’s open forum.

Some speakers applauded the idea of keeping both Sirko and Stein in the district but wondered why seven weeks have passed and the contracts aren’t finished. Others called for the board to give Stein more independence or to shorten Sirko’s proposed new contract to one year. The overall message seemed to be “We want Rob,” and “We might lose Rob if we don’t sign him up now.”

As Carbondale parent Eden Steele put it, “Excuse the hyperbole, but I think it would be criminal to lose him.”

Basalt parent Kimi Mischke urged the board to create “a contract giving Rob the autonomy he needs.”

Using an NFL football analogy, Bob Daniel, of Old Snowmass, told the board, “You guys have the opportunity to put the Tom Brady of superintendents in place. Don’t squander the opportunity.”

Stein didn’t offer any public comments about his contractual needs or whether he might leave the district. Board members listened politely to the speakers’ comments but didn’t reply except to assure people that their comments do play a role in board decisions.

Superintendent Diana Sirko, well-known to locals as a former Aspen schools superintendent, is seeking another two years at the helm of the Roaring Fork district.

Kelley Cox / Aspen Journalism

Superintendent Diana Sirko, well-known to locals as a former Aspen schools superintendent, is seeking another two years at the helm of the Roaring Fork district.

A complex history

The dispute over the Roaring Fork superintendent’s position is an odd one that has pitted two well-respected school leaders against each other. Sirko, who ran the Aspen School District from 2003 to 2010, has nearly four decades of public school experience and is currently president of the Colorado Association of School Executives. Stein led a well-documented academic turnaround at Manual High School in Denver in the late 2000s and also has served as headmaster of an elite private school. Last year, he led the creation of the Roaring Fork district’s long-term strategic plan.

Clearly, the Roaring Fork school board sees both Sirko and Stein as top-flight administrators, but the parents — at least the ones showing up at recent board meetings — are more enamored of Stein. In addition to pushing for Stein’s retention and promotion, some are questioning the process by which Sirko appears to have secured a contract extension.

In 2012, the district hired Stein to succeed Judy Haptonstall as superintendent. Just weeks into his new job, however, Stein stepped down when his wife was critically injured in a cycling accident. She eventually recovered but, by that time, Sirko had been chosen as interim superintendent. In fall of that year, the board reopened the superintendent’s position, both Sirko and Stein applied for the job, and Sirko was chosen unanimously.

Shortly thereafter, Sirko hired Stein to be the district’s assistant superintendent and chief academic officer. Though there were no contractual promises made, many parents and district employees said they understood at the time that Stein would replace Sirko at the end of her current contract.

So when Sirko asked in fall 2014 for a three-year extension, Stein’s fans spoke up in protest. Parents haven’t voiced any specific complaints about Sirko’s leadership, but do point to Stein’s reputation as an innovator, change-maker and critical thinker.

Next steps

The board seemed to defuse this controversy Dec. 10 by announcing a plan to rehire Sirko for two years and then pass the baton to Stein for the subsequent three years. As of Thursday, those timelines still framed the discussion, according to board President Daniel Biggs, regardless of some parents’ objections. However, the board also has broadened its gaze to examine and possibly tweak the job descriptions of several executive team members.

“After more than two hours of discussions on the draft contracts with all the parties during an executive session last night,” Biggs said Thursday, “the unanimous consensus of the board, Dr. Sirko, Dr. Stein and Shannon Pelland was that completing the work that is underway on defining roles, responsibilities and organizational dynamics should be completed prior to finalizing any of the contracts.”

This process could take several weeks, Biggs added.

Pelland is negotiating a two-year contract with some possible changes to her duties, and Technology Director Jeff Gatlin soon will become the district’s chief operating officer. Should Sirko and Stein sign new contracts in the coming weeks, their duties may be altered to reflect the new framework in the district office.

To that end, Biggs said, the board decided Wednesday to hire consultant Pam Britton to help define the various executive positions and ensure that they fit together.

Aspen Journalism’s education desk is collaborating with The Aspen Times on schools coverage. The Times published this story on Jan. 30.

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