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Aspen School Board Candidates Debate Teacher Pay And District Culture

Oct 18, 2019

Aspen School District's Board of Education Candidates debate at a forum held by Aspen Media Thursday night. From left to right: Jim Pomeroy, John Galambos, Katy Frisch, Patsy Kurkulis, Bettina Slusar and Jonathan Nickell.
Credit Molly Dove / Aspen Public Radio

Six candidates are vying for two open seats on the Aspen School District’s Board of Education. Aspen Media held the third and final forum of the week Thursday night. Much of the conversation focused on teachers and how they are paid, and the district’s culture and climate. 

When asked if they agree with the Aspen Education Association to start teachers at $50,000 dollars a year, a $7,000 increase a year, all candidates said yes. But Bettina Slusar argued that $50,000 is not enough.

“We need to make education what it once was: a very well-respected, and well compensated,” Slusar saud. “When you adjust for cost of living, we’re actually asking out teachers to live in poverty, which is not acceptable.”

Currently, the Aspen School System has 50 affordable housing units set aside for teachers, but only half are being used. Like all other candidates, Jonathan Nickell said that is a big problem. With over 200 staff members in the district that may want housing, it’s going to take a lot of money to provide that.

“If we’re going to make a real impact on this, I think we’re going to have to do something big like a bond issue or something and get some real money behind it,” Nickell said. “If we only want to get half of people in housing, at the average cost of a house in Aspen, we’re looking at some big math.”

To get more teachers in affordable housing, Jim Pomeroy said he has the most experience to get the job done.

“Unfortunately, not too many people have any ideas on how to do this. I actually have, probably, more experience with employee housing and how the program works than I know within this group,” Pomeroy said. “I’m probably one of the most knowledgeable folks outside of APCHA itself.”

Other candidates offered an alternative idea: instead of making sure there are slots of affordable houses set aside, a pay increase would allow teachers to live wherever they chose. 

The conversation also focused on district culture and climate, after what most candidates called mis-trust between the previous superintendent and community.

All candidates agree that the trust needs to be fixed. John Galambos said communication is the key in doing that.

“I was thinking about open houses and community nights where the board is available,” Galambos said. “Too often I think we got these meetings, we got this structure and if you can only get your point across at a board meeting, that’s trouble.”

Patsy Kurkulis said gaining that trust will be hard. She claims the board sided with the previous superintendent while ignoring parent and teacher’s concerns.

“It’s going to be a very hard thing for the superintendent, but he needs to gain the trust of all the teachers and the community,” Kurkulis said. “So just bringing forth more of a culture that everyone knows about, instead of questioning and creating rumors.”

Katy Frisch said she is more interested in what needs to be done next in order to move forward and hire a new superintendent. 

“And how the new board can create a community appropriate process to find the best fit community appropriate leader...and who will be able to communicate with, not to the community as well,” Frisch said. 

All candidates agreed that the new superintendent should communicate with teachers and the community, and create and accomplish a vision for the district. 

The two candidates to take the open seats on Aspen School District’s Board of Education will be decided on November 5th.