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Changes and challenges to come in some Roaring Fork Valley school districts

(From left to right) Tharyn Mulberry is a front-runner for the role of superintendent for the Aspen School District. Dr. Anna Cole and Dr. Bill Wilson are the two finalists for Roaring Fork School District superintendent. Tony May, a school board member for the Garfield RE-2 school district, spoke on a recall effort against him that could take place later this spring.
Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
(From left to right) Tharyn Mulberry is a front-runner for the role of superintendent for the Aspen School District. Dr. Anna Cole and Dr. Bill Wilson are the two finalists for Roaring Fork School District superintendent. Tony May, a school board member for the Garfield RE-2 school district, spoke on a recall effort against him that could take place later this spring.

School districts in the Roaring Fork Valley have made a lot of news this week.

The Aspen and Roaring Fork schools are looking for new superintendents, Aspen is considering a new cellphone policy, and an activist group in Garfield RE-2 has collected enough signatures to force a recall election for Tony May’s seat.

All Things Considered Host Halle Zander has been covering the stories and spoke with Aspen Public Radio News Director Kelsey Brunner to discuss the implications of the upcoming changes.

The interview is transcribed below, and you can listen above.

Kelsey Brunner: Hi Halle.

Halle Zander: Hi Kelsey! Before we get started, welcome to APR. You’re wrapping your first week as news director and we’re excited to have you.

Brunner: I’m excited to be here. So let’s start with the Aspen School District. Last week, Superintendent David Baugh, who has been in the role since 2020, announced he’s leaving the schools to be the executive director of the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club.

But instead of doing a national search, the school board has decided they’re only looking at internal candidates who already work in the district. Can you speak on why that is?

Zander: Well, national searches take time and can be expensive.

School districts hire outside consultants to headhunt for possible candidates.

They fly people out from across the country who visit for a few days to tour the schools.

And the last time they did a national search, their current assistant superintendent, Tharyn Mulberry, ended up on the shortlist.

And he was recently being considered for the superintendent position downvalley in the Roaring Fork School District.

So when Baugh’s resignation was announced, school board members said they were flooded with emails recommending Tharyn be hired for the position.

Here’s school board president Christa Giezl:

“He is somebody who gets Aspen,” Giezl said. “He’s been here. He has a family that’s here. He knows how to connect with the community here as well as the school community here. And that is hard to find.”

So Giezl and the rest of the board didn’t feel like a national search would tell them anything that they didn't already know.

They’re accepting applications until March 19 and may make an announcement at their board meeting the next day, depending on who applies.

Brunner: OK, can we now talk about how the Aspen School District might change their cellphone policy?

They conducted a survey among students, staff, and parents this winter about how they felt about smartphones in school, whether they’re distractions or not.

And they talked about the results at a safety forum last night. How did that go?

Zander: OK, well I was actually at a Roaring Fork School District meeting last night, so I’m not sure exactly what the discussion looked like. But I got a hold of some of the survey data they were presenting on.

I’ll say the results seem a little weird — very mixed.

About 60% of teachers reported that students never or almost never use cellphones in class.

But nearly 40% reported that students are constantly using their cellphones in classrooms.

So basically split on the extremes there.

And then nearly 90% of all the respondents said cellphones ARE a distraction for students, but almost all of the students who took the survey disagreed, saying their phones were not a distraction.

Superintendent David Baugh notes that several studies show smartphone addiction can have negative physical and mental health effects, and the district is considering a few new policies to address this.

One would be to allow only “dumb” phones or non-smartphones like flip phones on campus.

Another would be to invest in a tool called Yonder, which is a locked bag that students put their phones in during the school day.

The pouches would be unlocked when students leave for the day.

Now, the district is asking families and staff to fill out a follow-up survey to see if they support either of these ideas after hearing about the research and options.

Depending on those results, Baugh could go to the board to get one of these approved.

Brunner: Definitely keep us posted on that. But let’s move downvalley to the Roaring Fork School District, which covers schools between Basalt and Glenwood Springs.

They’re trying to hire a new superintendent there as well and they did a national search this winter. So, what’s the status?

Zander: So they identified three finalists originally, including their current interim superintendent Dr. Anna Cole.

Tharyn Mulberry was also named a finalist, but as we just mentioned he’s now pursuing the superintendent role in Aspen.

Dr. Bill Wilson is the last candidate and he works as the superintendent of the Brush School District in northeast Colorado.

And last night, Dr. Cole and Dr. Wilson gave brief presentations at the district office to groups of parents and other community members.

They were mostly there to answer questions.

I heard families ask about how the candidates would approach special education, sexual education and LGBTQ+ advocacy, and how the candidates would address the achievement gap between white and Latinx students.

Dr. Cole said that’s the district’s biggest challenge right now.

“We are fundamentally under-serving students of color and our English language learners, as compared to our Anglo students,” Cole said. “Right. We know that is the problem.”

But she said as superintendent she doesn’t really have a big role to play.

She cited a study from the Brookings Institute that says superintendents who cause substantive improvements in district performance are actually rare.

And it’s the bigger system that promotes or hinders student achievement.

So she put out a call to action to community partners that were in the room to help her in this work moving forward.

Voces Unidas, a Latino advocacy organization based in Glenwood, was there and is pushing for this topic to take center stage in the hiring process.

Now, Dr. Bill Wilson didn’t speak on this topic much but touted his experience growing up in rural places and working for rural school districts.

One thing of note that I’ll mention, is that he said when it comes to drug prevention strategies, he’s worked closely with police departments in the past and used drug-sniffing canines.

And he says communication with families when using these strategies is critical.

Brunner: Let’s go even farther downvalley, we have a recall election that’s about to get underway. Can you tell us more about that?

Zander: Yes, so a group called the “The Coalition for Responsible Education in Garfield RE-2” is helping lead a recall effort to unseat Tony May, who up until last week had not commented on their campaign publicly.

The group has accused May of using his leadership position to marginalize and bully other school board members and staff.

That’s after May pushed to approve the conservative American birthright social studies standards amid widespread resistance from parents and teachers.

That effort ultimately failed.

And at a recent school board meeting, May defended himself.

“My election platform has not wavered,” May said. “I decided to get involved because I recognized that masking and online school was a violation of our civil liberties. … The truth is, it is me that has been bullied from day one.”

He also said the organizers were politically motivated and raised a lot of concerns about the validity of the signatures they collected.

May says he won’t give up though.

And in that case, if he doesn’t resign, the Garfield County Clerk says her office will announce dates for the recall election on March 22.

Eligible electors do have about a week left to file a protest against the petition if they think it should be invalidated, but they have to provide proof that any misconduct occurred among petition circulators.

Brunner: Halle, thanks so much for keeping us posted on these stories.

Zander: Sure thing. Thank you!

Brunner: That was All Things Considered host and reporter Halle Zander filling us in on her reporting while on the education beat this week and discussing some upcoming changes to our local school districts.

You’re listening to Aspen Public Radio News.

Halle Zander is a broadcast journalist and the afternoon anchor on Aspen Public Radio during "All Things Considered." Her work has been recognized by the Public Media Journalists Association, the Colorado Broadcasters Association, and the Society of Professional Journalists.