October 20, 2015

School-board candidates weigh in on academics, finance and school culture

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Five candidates are vying for two four-year seats on the Aspen school board. A third seat, which lasts for two years, will be appointed by the new board after the November election. That seat may go to the third-place finisher in the election, but the new board will decide.

Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times

Five candidates are vying for two four-year seats on the Aspen school board. A third seat, which lasts for two years, will be appointed by the new board after the November election. That seat may go to the third-place finisher in the election, but the new board will decide.

Candidate Mary Houchin

Jeremy Wallace / The Aspen Times

Candidate Mary Houchin

Question 1: Please describe your reasons for seeking a seat on the Aspen School District board of education, and how you feel you could contribute.

Mary Houchin: Appointment to the Aspen Board would enable me to give back to my community and serve the district. My career has been dedicated to our greatest resource, our youth. I want to continue to make a difference by supporting our students. Board serving is an investment in my community and the residing youth. I nurture my soul most through giving.

My assets would be working 30 years in education. My classroom experience
provides hands-on knowledge of the needs of the students, elevating them to succeed to their fullest potential. My work with the courts in High Conflict Domestic Cases/Mediation promotes me in conflict management.

“I believe our true purpose in life is to give our life away to others and that we
receive happiness, fulfillment and meaning in return.” — Stephen Light

Margeaux Johansson: Parent participation on the school board is anemic. I am the only person among the candidates or continuing board members with kids currently in the Aspen school system. It is imperative that parents are represented on the school board and have a voice in how the schools are run. I have children in the elementary, middle, and high schools and I intend to be the voice of the parents on the board. Being on the school board should not be a hobby or to score political points — as a candidate I think you need to have a stake in the outcome.

Lee Mulcahy: As a former teacher of 17 years (including the University of Texas at Arlington), I will be a conciliatory, peaceful but strong voice for the community. My dad was the most honorable man I’ve ever known and he taught me the value of service and loving your fellow man. He came from a farm without running water; but my mom’s (a teacher) educational roots go back to founding of Baylor University in 1845 under the Republic. My family is here in Kenya continuing his legacy of clean water wells near the school founded in his name.

I feel passionate about being an influence on the lives of young people in Aspen and take great pride in the fact that I’m an Eagle Scout, a product of public schools, a Sorbonne graduate, a Ph.D. and a 2nd-generation teacher.

While Aspen has long maintained a tradition of excellence, there is always room for improvement. Last election, The Aspen Times endorsed both incumbents over the local, hardworking Aspen High graduate, also a teacher. The resulting record is significant: 1) A budget where administrative costs have skyrocketed. 2) Lack of transparency. 3) A vote of no confidence by faculty. 4) Grade changes without teachers’ knowledge. 5) Perhaps most concerning of all, an atmosphere of fear where community members were worried about retaliation against their children or jobs.

Sandra Peirce: It has been my privilege to serve on the board the past four years. I felt the board needed members with proven board experience, who had good working relationships with stakeholders, and had shown a long-standing commitment to our schools. These are my strengths. I also have initiatives that will require another term to accomplish. These include securing long-term, stable, sustainable local funding for our schools; continuing to monitor k-12 math to ensure it meets the needs of our children through college or the work force, and to continue to work on the quality of culture of the Aspen School District.

Sheila Wills: Simply put, I have unfinished business. I use my business acumen, legal experience and education background to help guide the district in its pursuit of excellence in education. Successfully implementing the long-term financial plan, continuing the quest for improved student achievement in mathematics, fine tuning the direction of the world language program, and defining the organizational culture of the district: these are tasks begun during my first term that I want to complete during my second. There is a steep learning curve for the first year or two. I have that behind me; I am ready to get things done.

Candidate Margeaux Johansson

Jeremy Wallace / The Aspen Times

Candidate Margeaux Johansson

Question 2: Funding is a tough matter for all Colorado schools. Do you support the Aspen district’s current strategies to supplement state money with local funds, and are there other options that you’d recommend?

Margeaux Johansson: The board’s current strategies to counter reduced state funding are necessary first steps, but we must do more to find creative solutions for permanent funding that does not further burden the Aspen School District taxpayers. One obvious solution is to focus on fundraising from private donations through the Aspen Educational Foundation, but we need to do more. I will advocate for seeking further creative funding solutions. For instance, in Vermont, non-residential homeowners contribute nearly half of the funding for educational spending in the state, which is raised through local property taxes. Aspen has an incredibly wealthy non-resident tax base that is underutilized for education funding. We need to look at creative ways for them to contribute their fair share to the school district so that the resident Aspen school district taxpayers are not further burdened.

Lee Mulcahy: Yes; vastly expanded Aspen Education Foundation fundraising instead of planning to demand yet another tax raise from citizens in 2016. We spend $14,000 per student, which is about twice the state average. In our recent debate, my opponent stated, “we should collect as much mill levy tax as we can.” With both incumbents’ recent endorsement to outfit a school bus like a private jet with LED lighting, captains’ chairs, Wi-Fi, etc. at a cost of $40,000+, at some point, the Board has begun to lose the trust of citizens.

Sandra Peirce: I support the district’s financial strategy. The Supreme Court’s decision to award the “negative factor” constitutional status assures continued loss of state funds. The board developed the district’s first 10-year financial plan. The path to long-term, sustainable, financial stability for the district is the board’s “three prong” approach: 1) take advantage of the mill levy override, 2) continue the City of Aspen’s 0.3% sales tax, and 3) develop a financial contribution from Snowmass Village. Considering the limitations imposed by the School Finance Act, and the provisions of Gallagher and TABOR amendments, the plan developed by this school board is innovative, comprehensive and sustainable.

Sheila Wills: Last school year, the state cut approximately 13 percent from almost every district’s budget. This year, those cuts totaled $855 million statewide and $2.2 million locally. During my tenure on the board, we analyzed the resources the district will require to maintain its current program level, continue to attract and retain highly qualified staff and care for its existing school buildings and campus. We then looked at the available funding sources and created the long-term financial plan that starts with 3A on the November ballot. Local funding sources are the only dependable, long-term sources potentially available. This community has very little control over decisions made at the state level. By making a commitment to the proposed long-term plan, the voters will provide the district the ability to focus on providing the highest quality education possible instead of repeatedly creating tiered budget-reduction strategies that respond to the fiscal whims of the Colorado legislature.

Mary Houchin: I promote the district’s current strategy (of) supplementing state money with local funds. I support 3A. I advocate for the renewal of the Aspen sales tax, hoping Snowmass Village will examine financial avenues to assist our schools. Securing local funding through continued private and public partnerships is beneficial. Examples of partnerships include: Funding for Excellence Committee, which solicits contributions, campaigning for 3A and Aspen Education Foundation whose sole mission provides charitable funding to the District. Reforms in the school finance bill may also assist.

Candidate Lee Mulcahy

Jeremy Wallace / The Aspen Times

Candidate Lee Mulcahy

Question 3: Aspen School District is known as a high-performing district, but are there areas — academic or otherwise — where you’d like to pursue improvements or changes?

Lee Mulcahy: I strongly believe we must find more innovative ways for the administration to listen to both parents and teachers in the educational process. Despite recent pleas from both rabbis, the Superintendent honored Jewish families (nearly 25 percent of our community) by scheduling ExEd over the holiest of holidays, Yom Kippur. (b) Less standardized testing. (c) We need more advanced “Honors” classes for the middle school, more vocational training, and a greater focus on our Bill of Rights. (d) No more secret grade changes. (e) Transparency. (f) Syllabus for high school classes (with the stipulation they cannot be used as a weapon by administration).

Sandra Peirce: Two years ago, the board determined the World Languages program was not serving our students adequately. The board invested considerable time and effort to develop policy that clearly communicated our desired results. These policy changes led to the development of a stronger and better-aligned foreign language program. Our next priority should be to take a focused look at our mathematics program. Interviewing our high school alumni, we consistently hear that math is the area in which they feel the least prepared. It is time for the board to expend time and effort to develop policy around mathematics that will again communicate the results we wish for our students.

Sheila Wills: Even high-performing school districts have room to improve. I am most interested in successfully implementing the long-term financial plan, continuing the quest for improved student achievement in mathematics, fine tuning the direction of the world language program and further defining the organizational culture of the district. I would also like to investigate how the district might use technology to better meet the needs of our students through broadened program offerings and added schedule flexibility.

Mary Houchin: As a Coherent Governance Board member, reviewing recent data and results of the students’ achievement would determine academic needs going forth. Results will address the specific areas of change and improvement, with continued forward momentum in math, literacy, science, advanced technology and the importance of the arts. I am a strong supporter of the three-fold nature, nurturing the union of the whole person, “mind, body and spirit.” Academics are very important but needs to be extended to settings beyond the classroom. Relationships with others, empathy, compassion, positive attitude, service to others, self-esteem and self–growth all develop individual successes.


Margeaux Johansson
: Aspen high school graduates are increasingly struggling to compete in their college-level math and science classes. Math and science are fundamental building blocks for students achieving academic success at the college level, and to build careers for the future. We can, and must, do better. For instance, we need to further develop our curriculum to allow for a broader range of rigorous online course options and academic support, which is essential to more efficiently utilize the academic and facility resources of the school district.

Incumbent school board member Sandra Peirce

Jeremy Wallace / The Aspen Times

Incumbent school board member Sandra Peirce

Question 4: For years, tension between teachers and administrators has existed at Aspen High School, resulting in high turnover in the principal’s position and unhappiness registered on staff surveys. Does this concern you and, if so, how should the board act to resolve the tension?

Sandra Peirce: The quality of culture is important throughout the district and extremely important to me. The board made a commitment to improving the culture in the high school by committing to a national search firm to find a new principal and by requiring an open, transparent and cooperative selection process involving staff, students and parents. I believe that commitment and process have resulted in the hiring of a knowledgeable, organized, personable new principal, who has demonstrated strong communication skills and who appears to be very well-liked by his staff.

Sheila Wills: The current Board of Education expects the organizational culture of the entire district to be one of professional support, courtesy and collaboration. In September 2014, the Board revised policy OE-8 to clarify the standard for the district’s organizational culture. The subsequent changes at the high school have been numerous. A new leadership team consisting of teachers who want to be more involved in school governance; a new Academic Integrity Committee; a principal search committee made up of over 30 staff, students, parents and community members; and the installation of a new high school principal and vice principal all have contributed to a very positive start to this school year. If elected I will continue to focus on the positive development of the district’s organizational culture.

Mary Houchin: The perceived tensions between teachers and administration at the high school should be recognized. How teachers are supported in their roles as educators is paramount. The Board can provide acknowledgement and validation of concerns. Teacher collaboration with administration and peers is essential. The supportive administrative leadership of the new high school principal is seemingly valuable, helping promote and move towards a school culture of trust. Teachers are responsive to positive change and can collectively collaborate with peers and administration to find solutions and tools to improve the teaching and learning environment.


Margeaux Johansson
: The current school board must hold itself and the superintendent accountable for these failures. The board must assume leadership and it cannot cede responsibility to the superintendent. The board must support the administration with proper funding to attract and retain the best administration and faculty. Like any working environment, cooperation and empowerment of the staff comes through leadership, transparency and accountability.

Lee Mulcahy: If elected, I’ll canvass with current board members Bob Glau and Susan Marolt to elect one of them as President. Regarding recent criticism of the teachers, Susan flat-out stated, “I don’t buy it. I think they’re talented and passionate and they certainly deserve an inspiring leader.”

Whereas incumbents Sheila & Susan are cheerleaders for a superintendent whose record is concerning and whose administration expenses have ballooned, everyone knows I’ve had experience with a bullying style of management. The community should thank the Peirce family for their service, time and domination of the Board for 16 of the last 20 years; but the time has come for change.

Incumbent school board member Sheila Wills

Jeremy Wallace / The Aspen Times

Incumbent school board member Sheila Wills

Question 5: The principles of “Coherent Governance” guide the Board of Education in its decision-making and relationship to the district administration. Do you believe Coherent Governance is a good model? Why or why not?

Sheila Wills: Coherent Governance is a good model. The board of education is made up of volunteer community members who are often parents, community activists, business people or lawyers but almost never anyone with any school district administrative experience. The Coherent Governance model permits the Board to monitor, review and modify any aspect of the district while leaving the day-to-day management decisions to the professional administrator the Board employs.

Mary Houchin: Coherent Governance is a good model. My understanding is it builds and establishes strategic leadership that engages the community, embracing a common set of core beliefs. These beliefs are the mission/vision of the district. The board is entrusted to support the best interest of the district and students. The board leads through policy, developing collaboration and focusing on results/outcomes. Expectations, evaluations and goals are defined and clear. “A growing body of literature and research suggests that boards can add value to raising student achievement.” Maricle, C. (2014) Governing to Achieve. CSBA.


Margeaux Johansson
: It appears that “Coherent Governance” has led the school board to abrogate its responsibilities to the superintendent, and limited its ability to act, with disastrous results. Under “Coherent Governance”, we have had four principals over five years, significant discord between teachers and administration, the high school ranking has fallen from number 1 in the state to 7th, math and science is struggling, college placements are increasingly challenging, and we have difficulties funding the school district operations. Currently adopted “Coherent Governance” policies limit the ability of the Board of Education to directly intervene in school matters that are delegated to the superintendent. I believe the board should retain more authority to direct the superintendent when warranted.


Lee Mulcahy
: Yes, but the problem is a lack of transparency with off-the-record meetings where deliberations are held in secret (i.e., recent board/superintendent decision to appoint rather than elect the 3rd trustee). If elected, I promise to honor the will of the voters and appoint the 3rd place finisher at the polls. All other candidates to date have refused to sign this pledge.

Finally, citizens know I’ll stand tall and call a spade a spade. We need new leadership. We need change. I would be humbled and honored to have your vote.

Sandra Peirce: Coherent Governance is the gold standard for school board governance. It is the mission of the board to set goals for and monitor student achievement. Coherent Governance removes the board from the day-to-day operations of the district, over which it typically has no direct experience, and allows the board to oversee from the policy level, which directly impacts outcomes across the district. The board creates policy around results (District Mission, Academic Achievement, Life Skills and Citizenship) and sets operational expectations for the district. The implementation of these policies is left to the superintendent. The board then annually monitors all these result and operational expectations closely for reasonable progress.

Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on education coverage. The Times published these questions and answers in a series of articles from Oct. 8 to 19.

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