GLENWOOD SPRINGS — When the Roaring Fork School District board finally approved contracts with its two top administrators on Wednesday, March 11, there was a palpable sense of relief in the room.
Around the conference table at the district’s Glenwood Springs office, congratulations and thank-yous flew between the attendees. Board member Karl Hanlon noted the fact that no vigilant parents were in the audience, which seemed to him a sort of tacit approval of the deal crafted over three months among the board, Superintendent Diana Sirko and Assistant Superintendent Rob Stein.
Board President Daniel Biggs commented that it seemed almost “anticlimactic” to make the unanimous decision at a mostly quiet, sparsely attended meeting. But he and the others were clearly proud of what they’d achieved.
“We’re keeping the team together, and we’re allowing (Sirko and Stein) to use their talents and their strengths,” Biggs said after the meeting.
Three months ago, the board had to move its Dec. 10 meeting to the Roaring Fork High School auditorium in order to accommodate a crowd of more than 60 parents and district staff members with opinions on the district’s future leadership. At the time, Sirko had requested a three-year extension to her current contract, which expires in June. But parents in Basalt and Carbondale cried foul, saying they had long understood that Stein was to take the helm. They feared that Stein, the district’s chief academic officer, would leave if he weren’t allowed to step into the top position.
The board defused the situation by proposing a compromise under which both administrators would stay in the district. The deal actually required three contracts: one two-year contract for Sirko as superintendent and two contracts for Stein, a two-year agreement as chief academic officer and a separate three-year agreement under which Stein would succeed Sirko.
The deal grew out of an awkward and sometimes tense situation in which the general public stepped uninvited into a district staffing decision. But three months later, with both administrators having committed to stick around, stakeholders on all sides seem pleased.
“I think the most important piece is that the board’s action has created a long-term vision of what leadership looks like in the Roaring Fork School District,” said Sirko, who will be paid $170,000 per year for the next two years. “This allows (the district) to keep a team that’s working effectively in place.”
Roles and responsibilities
The new contracts lay out a power-sharing framework among Sirko, Stein and the rest of the district’s executive team. A separate contract for Shannon Pelland, the district’s assistant superintendent and chief financial officer, is still in the works.
As chief executive, Sirko retains the ultimate responsibility for all district staff, but she also will be the external “face of the district,” overseeing communications and relations with district partners and stakeholders, from parents to the state government to the towns where district schools are located. These duties square well with Sirko’s decades of public school experience in various Colorado towns, including Aspen and Colorado Springs.
Stein, in keeping with his title, will oversee all matters related to student instruction and assessment. His focus will be internal, making sure that classroom activities are integrated with the district’s strategic plan. Stein’s popularity among parents arises in part from his reputation as an innovator, so a key part of his mission will be to lift academic performance district-wide.
“I think there are great opportunities here,” said Stein, who will earn $130,000 per year for his next two years as chief academic officer. His salary will be renegotiated when he becomes superintendent in 2017.
“There is a lot of passion and support for these schools, and there are some very interesting challenges,” he added. “The fact that our schools are not performing at the level the community wants — the recognition of that is a great opportunity.”
Focus on performance
The debate over the district’s leadership arises in part from the public perception of Roaring Fork as an underperforming district. In recent years with Sirko at the helm, district officials have created a long-term strategic plan (overseen by Stein), a master plan to upgrade district buildings (led by Pelland) and a technology initiative to equip every student in grades four through 12 with a computer, among other programs.
The parents who spoke most forcefully to the district board have been clear in their message that Stein is the key to maintaining momentum and improving overall district performance.
“There’s this sense that we’ve got this guy who’s something special for many reasons; he’s not your typical school administrator; he’s not a bureaucrat; he thinks differently,” said parent Ellen Freedman of Basalt.
Now that Stein has signed on the dotted line, the parents seem more willing to give Sirko her due and acknowledge the team effort required to run a district with 5,400 students.
Parent Debbie Bruell of Carbondale, who kicked off the entire discussion with a Nov. 20 opinion in the Sopris Sun, thinks the new contracts should enable both administrators to be more effective.
“It sounds like they’re both able to use their strengths,” Bruell said. “Diana has done an amazing job with (community) relationships. Every school meeting I go to, Diana is there.”
A new chapter
In some respects, the new arrangement won’t necessarily change the way things function in the district office, but the contracts clarify the administrators’ distinct roles. The district spent $2,500 for organizational development consultant Pam Britton to help define Sirko’s and Stein’s positions. This clarity was especially important to Stein, who tends to chafe under the weight of public school bureaucracy.
“The public school system as we’ve designed it is highly bureaucratized and highly regulated,” Stein said. “I look outside the system for other solutions that might work better.“
Stein’s new contract gives him more autonomy over the academic program and, as he put it, “permission” to keep the district on track toward stronger performance.
He pointed to a document called “Qualities of an Effective Organization for High Student Achievement Results” that was created during the contract negotiations. The document lists “mission driven” at the very top — a clear indication that student achievement and growth are paramount. At the bottom of the document is “regulatory compliance,” indicating that bureaucratic paperwork, while a necessary part of public education, is not a primary focus.
The signing of Sirko’s and Stein’s contracts not only secures a district leadership team in place but also establishes a new definition of success. What began as a dispute over the superintendent’s position turned into a broader discussion about district goals. At this early stage in the new era, just about everyone is optimistic.
“I’m really grateful (board members) were able to think out of the box,” Bruell said.
“The board really felt like we had the dream team and we wanted to keep them in there,” Biggs said. “The community input helped us to broaden the conversation.”
Aspen Journalism’s education desk is collaborating with The Aspen Times on schools coverage. This story was published in the Times on March 16, 2015.