It’s not surprising that Aspen’s driven, competitive culture has infiltrated the mood in the local schools.
But one of the conclusions drawn from the independent climate and culture study that was presented April 2 in separate meetings to Aspen School District staff, the board of education and the community-at-large is that more emphasis on collaboration and less on competition would go a long way.
“The bottom line is that the culture needs to be aligned with whatever your core values are,” explained Liz Wilson, principal in a Denver-based firm that completed the initial phase of a study commissioned by the board of education. The meetings were not recorded, according to Angela Rittenhouse, district administrative assistant.
Wilson spoke Thursday in an interview about the survey that saw responses from 211 district employees (out of 306 who were initially contacted) and about 60 members of the public through community focus groups. Additional participation came from one-on-one meetings and staff meet and greets, Wilson said.
In her report, it’s noted that Aspen’s “size and location is more like a rural district. Demographic profile of the community is more like an affluent urban and affluent suburban district. Aspen School District is a hybrid that doesn’t typically describe itself that way.”
During extrapolation of the results, Wilson said, “One of the things I did bring up is that Aspen is a pretty intense place. It’s not easy to get to and has some really accomplished, really competitive people. This is where the X Games happen! It’s also not a place where people are shy to say what their opinions are.”
In a section about dynamics and culture, it was noted that Aspen’s ethos seems to be: “work hard, play harder, then work harder and play even harder.”
This “assertiveness morphs into aggression, both passive and direct,” according to the survey.
What was suggested were “alternatives that are more effective and healthy: Set boundaries and meeting norms; listen to feedback and adapt; mutual accountability; rooted in shared values.”
In terms of the district’s overall culture, one suggested remedy was to “address the gap between the perceived and ideal culture.”
Trust is key
Among the specific recommendations to the school board were to “improve communication” and also to determine its role “in steering strategy and values, then participate.”
On Thursday, Wilson explained, “It’s not my place to decide what is the right culture. That is a decision for all the stakeholders that are part of the district.”
Trust is an area that respondents ranked as important, whether it was from senior leadership, the principal and assistant principal or other district administrators.
One survey question asks: “Someone at work seems to care about me as a person,” to which 156 out of 174 respondents strongly agreed. Only five people disagreed with the statement and 13 neither agreed nor disagreed.
Results that were broken out by specific department weren’t included in the survey’s 90-page PowerPoint presentation, Wilson said, suggesting that some of the information was confidential. She will be doing follow-up meetings as well.
Specific questions were also asked about “senior leadership,” which was defined as the superintendent and the board of education.
To the statement: “Senior district leadership takes time to listen and understand the employees’ point of view,” more people said they disagreed than agreed.
The majority of the 172 respondents also disagreed that “senior district leadership can be relied upon to do the right thing even when it’s challenging or difficult.”
On Wednesday, one day after the survey results were revealed, Superintendent Dr. John Maloy published a newsletter where he wrote: “I want to reassure you that I am taking the results very seriously. Please know, I have already started a conversation with the leadership team around what actionable steps we can take to immediately begin to work collaboratively to build trust within our schools, the district and the community.
“True long-term change won’t happen overnight, but I ask that you join me in the journey beginning with small steps that will lead to great strides,” Maloy noted.
“I appreciate your feedback and encourage you to become engaged in helping to identify our common values and develop strategic goals that align with these values,” he added.
Contacted Thursday about his take on the survey results, Dwayne Romero, president of the Aspen School District’s board of education, wrote in an email that, “We are extremely grateful to all our great employees for participating in the study, and are genuinely excited about the findings and the opportunities for improvement forthcoming from this important work.
“The overwhelming message that comes out of the study is a deep desire for enhanced levels of collaboration and caring throughout the district. The BOE hears this, and is intent upon helping to move the organization in that direction,” Romero said.
He thanked Wilson for her expertise, professionalism and care in delivering the findings.
“We are a better organization as a result of her efforts,” Romero said, adding that “we see this as a start, not an endpoint.”
Wilson said the initial culture and climate work was budgeted at between $10,000 and $12,000 plus travel expenses, but that the board had approved a different final figure. That could not be confirmed Thursday by the BOE.