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. Credit: Jeremy Wallace / The Aspen Times

There were no fireworks and only a few points of direct disagreement, but the Aspen School District’s “Board of Education Candidates’ Forum” on Tuesday, Sept. 15 did serve to reveal differences among the five candidates.

For example, all five candidates, who are vying for two four-year seats, endorsed the Aspen School District’s request for a voter-approved property tax increase on the Nov. 3 ballot. When asked, however, about the skills they would bring to the school board, their experience in the education world or their vision of the district in five years, the responses varied considerably.

Once seated, the newly elected school board will appoint the occupant of a third two-year seat.

All candidates described themselves as good listeners and agreed that Aspen can and should find creative ways to address the statewide school-funding gap. But certain candidates also pointed out specific problems, including morale issues at Aspen High School and underperformance in math and science.

Moderator David Bach asked the same questions of each candidate, and each candidate received an equal amount of time to answer in his or her own way. Here is a brief summary of what the five candidates had to say:

Credit: Jeremy Wallace / The Aspen Times

Mary Houchin

From the start, Houchin emphasized her 30 years of classroom teaching experience as a key attribute. Her husband is a school bus driver, her daughter is a teacher in the Roaring Fork School District, and Houchin’s passion and profession has always been kids.

“Being a retired teacher, I know what goes on in the classroom, what students need to achieve to their highest level,” she said.

Houchin agreed with other candidates about the importance of academic performance, but she was the only candidate to speak in support of the district’s emphasis on the “whole child.” Also, while acknowledging the value of experience on the school board, she said, “new is sometimes better.”

Credit: Jeremy Wallace / The Aspen Times

Margeaux Johansson

With children in fourth grade, seventh grade and 10th grade, Johansson emphasized her “personal stake” in the strength of Aspen’s schools. With most current board members’ children having graduated, she said, “parent representation on the school board is rather anemic.”

Johansson also expressed concern with teacher turnover and the district’s math and science instruction, particularly at the high school level. When asked what she envisions for the district in five years, Johansson answered in part, “I would certainly hope our science and math departments have been significantly strengthened.”

Credit: Jeremy Wallace / The Aspen Times

Lee Mulcahy

With no kids in the school system, Mulcahy touted his belief in education and public service as his reasons for running. Though personable, Mulcahy was easily the most confrontational of the candidates, saying repeatedly that Aspen High has had “four principals in six years,” indicating managerial and administrative problems, and alleging that most current board members “march in lockstep” with Superintendent John Maloy.

“The community would definitely like to put the superintendent on notice,” he said.

Mulcahy called for the district to reduce standardized testing and reschedule ExEd programs so as not to conflict with Yom Kippur. He also mispronounced the name of current board member Bob Glah, indicating a possible need for more homework on Mulcahy’s part.

Credit: Jeremy Wallace / The Aspen Times

Sandra Peirce

Incumbent board President Peirce said she is seeking a second term in order to complete “unfinished work” — especially that of securing local funding to support the quality education that Aspenites expect in their public schools.

Peirce referred multiple times to a “three-pronged approach” to local school funding, including the proposed November property tax increase, a future increase in a city of Aspen sales tax and some kind of help from Snowmass Village.

“What I’d like to do is have our funding be so secure that we can focus on educating our children,” said Peirce, adding that she’s worked on several mill levy campaigns for the district.

Peirce acknowledged that the district has work to do in the area of math but said the board has prioritized high school math instruction and saw a welcome jump in recent ACT test results.

Credit: Jeremy Wallace / The Aspen Times

Sheila Wills

With no kids currently attending district schools, Wills is running for her second term in order to finish work that she started in her first. Foremost among her priorities is local school funding, and she prescribed the same solutions as Peirce.

In addition, however, Wills wants to work on a long-term plan for the district’s buildings and expand course offerings to embrace new technologies.

“We need to broaden our offerings through legitimate, rigorous, online classes,” Wills said. “I’d love to see them able to take Russian or Chinese.”

Wills said her varied background in education, business and law helps make her a strong board member.

“I have the ability to listen to people and find the compromise,” she said. “My legal background helps tremendously with drafting and reviewing and implementing policy.”

Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times on education coverage. The Times published this story on Sept. 16, 2015.

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