May 27, 2015

Questions surround Aspen School District’s resignations, retirements

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The administrative offices at Aspen High School.

Christina Capasso/Aspen Journalism

The administrative offices at Aspen High School.

The sudden resignation of Aspen High School’s principal May 12, along with a handful of other retirements and departures occurring at the end of the school year, has led many residents to wonder if all is well at the Aspen School District.

Superintendent John Maloy said the district usually has to fill about 15 vacancies each year, and that number hasn’t been reached yet. Still, the abrupt departure of Principal Kim Martin just weeks before the end of the year, along with a shuffle in the administrative ranks that has left the curriculum director’s position open, has parents and other community members concerned.

“What I don’t understand is why we’re running through so many principals in such a short time,” said Michele Cardamone, whose daughter, Nikki, is a junior at the high school. “It seems to me that there is really low morale at Aspen High School right now, and I’m not sure why. I’m concerned that there are deep-rooted problems that need to be addressed.”

Both parents and school staff members contacted for this story declined to be interviewed or quoted, for fear that their children or jobs might be negatively affected.

Since longtime Principal Charlie Anastas stepped down in 2010, the high school has seen three principals — Art Abelmann, Dave Schmid and Martin — and students are expected to welcome yet another executive come fall.

Meanwhile, Assistant Superintendent Julia Roark will leave at the end of the year. Maloy has already hired Curriculum Director Tom Heald, a former principal at Aspen Middle School, to replace Roark, but the curriculum director job must now be filled.

Betsy Ann Anastas, assistant principal at Aspen Elementary School, will retire at the end of this year, along with Transportation Director Fred Brooks. Both administrators have been with the district for decades and announced their retirements at least a year ago.

Six faculty members are leaving, as well: middle school English Language Learner teacher Nell Birk, high school librarian Lauren Cassatt, high school social-studies teacher Karen Green, high school social-studies teacher Kirk Gregory, physical-education teacher and former coach Steve Ketchum and high school English teacher Andy Popinchalk.

“This is the biggest year we’ve had in terms of retirement,” Maloy said. “It just happened. We have a lot of people of the same age with lots of experience, and they have committed to retire.”

Aspen High School Principal Kim Martin spent three years leading the school, but she was also the fourth AHS principal in the last six years.

Christina Capasso/Aspen Journalism

Aspen High School Principal Kim Martin spent three years leading the school, but she was also the fourth AHS principal in the last six years.

Susan Marolt, a member of the district’s governing board, said she isn’t unnerved by all the movement of late, but she does think the district can do more to attract and retain good employees.

“We have such an incredibly talented group of teachers and staff, I definitely want to keep them around,” Marolt said. “We have to make sure it’s an engaging, exciting and wonderful place to work.”

Popinchalk has been teaching in Aspen for more than 30 years but said much of the fun has left the job recently, owing both to the increasing prevalence of standardized testing and data-driven schooling and to a persistent divide between teachers and administrators at the high school. He said he’s leaving for a variety of reasons but hopes the school’s teachers will have a say in the hiring of their next principal and that communication can improve between faculty and administration.

“What teachers at the high school want is leadership that is engaged with and values teachers,” Popinchalk said. “The teaching professionals in our high school can be challenging because of their personalities, the range of their opinions, the varied and wonderful approaches they have to doing things and their quirks of character. Managing a group like that can be challenging, but for the last four years there has been no interest (from administrators) in taking up that challenge.”

The various faculty retirees were invited to attend a cake-cutting recognition at a May 18 Aspen Board of Education meeting, but several, including Popinchalk, declined, owing to discomfort with the idea of a staged “appreciation.”

Abelmann left in 2011 after less than two years on the job. The details of his resignation were never made public, but some of his faculty relationships were known to be rocky. Schmid became interim principal after Abelmann’s departure but was not offered the permanent job. (Schmid is retiring in June after three years as principal at Basalt High School.) Martin took the reins at Aspen High School in the fall of 2012 and left last week, roughly a year after receiving a vote of no confidence from a majority of high school faculty members.

Whatever the details of each principal’s departure, teacher relations appear to be a consistent issue.

“The principal’s position comes with a great deal of complexity and responsibility,” Maloy said. “It’s a little more complicated here because we’re a high-performing high school in the whole culture of a resort community.”

Aspen is also a community with high expectations, Maloy said. Four or five years is “above average” for many administrative positions, he added, but Aspen parents aren’t necessarily accustomed to the parade of new faces.

Marolt has heard some community members blame a group of longtime Aspen High School teachers for resisting change and causing problems, but she said flatly, “I don’t buy it.

“I think they’re talented and passionate and they certainly deserve an inspiring leader,” Marolt said.

Maloy said students, parents and staff members will be involved in the hiring of the new Aspen High School principal. He aims to have a new person in the position by July 1 but admits the process may take longer.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on education coverage. The Times published this story on Tuesday, May 26, 2015.

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