Diana Sirko, former superintendent of the Aspen School District, is now superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District RE-1.
Diana Sirko, former superintendent of the Aspen School District, is now superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District RE-1. Credit: Kelley Cox / Aspen Journalism

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – The Roaring Fork School District says it’s too early to discuss other candidates for the superintendent’s job, but a group of parents are already forcing the issue.

The school board announced Wednesday that it will consider a three-year contract extension for Superintendent Diana Sirko at a meeting at Bridges High School in Carbondale on Dec. 10.

The problem is that a significant number of parents and district staff members expected Sirko to be replaced at the end of her existing contract by Rob Stein, the district’s assistant superintendent and chief academic officer. To these parents, at least, the consideration of Sirko’s extension request constitutes a change of course at best or a broken promise at worst.

“For the past two years, every involved parent, every teacher and every principal I have communicated with has been anticipating that Stein will be hired as superintendent at the end of Sirko’s contract this spring,” wrote Carbondale parent and former school board member Debbie Bruell in a guest column for The Aspen Times.

In January 2012, the Roaring Fork School Board terminated then-superintendent Judy Haptonstall’s contract and launched an exhaustive search for a new leader. Stein was selected in May 2012 after months of interviews and input from staff, parents and others.

Stein stepped down in July 2012 after about a month in his new position. His wife had been severely injured in a bicycle accident, and he was needed at home. The district filled the vacancy a few weeks later with Sirko, an experienced public school executive who led the Aspen School District from 2003 to 2010.

The Roaring Fork School Board originally hired Sirko as an interim superintendent, but the “interim” was dropped from her title a few months later. Around the same time, she brought Stein back to the district as an assistant superintendent, after his wife experienced a remarkable recovery.

According to current Roaring Fork School Board President Daniel Biggs, Sirko was hired by the school board, but Stein was then hired by Sirko, who is empowered to assemble her own leadership team.

“We have a contract with our single employee, the superintendent, and she has a contract with him,” Biggs said.

Thus, Biggs added, the contracts weren’t linked in any formal way, and there was no agreement designating Stein as Sirko’s heir apparent. Biggs said he has received some 15 emails about the matter but couldn’t guess about the extent of what he called a “misperception.”

Stein declined to comment for this story, and Sirko could not be reached by press time.

(Editor’s note: also see story in the Glenwood Post Independent, where Sirko is quoted as saying, “This has become a much more contentious issue than I ever anticipated. Two years ago, when I signed the contract that I’m currently working under, we agreed that I’d have a right to request a renewal. Why wouldn’t I? I love what I’m doing. I believe I have something to contribute.”)

At this point, Biggs said, Sirko has formally requested a three-year contract extension. This didn’t surprise him because the original discussions between Sirko and the board involved commitments ranging from one to five years. Sirko’s position isn’t formally open, Biggs said, so nobody else has applied for it.

“We are where we are,” Biggs said. “She has requested an extension and we need to consider the extension.”

This situation has blindsided some parents and Stein supporters, who note that he led the district’s now-complete strategic planning process. Furthermore, they say, Stein has a proven track record as a reformer, as shown by his 2007 to 2010 turnaround of Denver’s Manual High School.

Most of the parents speaking up about the superintendent’s contract are not anti-Sirko but are determinedly pro-Stein.

“If the decision is made to continue (Sirko’s) tenure,” wrote Basalt parent Auden Schendler in an email to the school board, “I’d be worried that Rob Stein would choose to move on rather than wait an indefinite time before he could take the helm.”

Schendler and other parents also question why the board has scheduled the decision on Dec. 10, leaving little time for public input. They note that the board also has two brand-new members, Mary Elizabeth Geiger and Karl Hanlon, who were appointed (not elected) to fill two vacancies.

Board member Matt Hamilton, who was president at the time of Sirko’s hiring, said the decision about the superintendent for the next three years may be one of the most important votes the current board will take.

“The question before the board is much broader than just a question of a contract extension,” Hamilton said. “This deserves a public process, just like the public process that allowed us to select Rob Stein (as superintendent) three years ago.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on coverage of schools and education. The Times published this story on Monday, Nov. 24, 2014.