Aurora Public Schools board members during their March 21, 2023 meeting. SENTINEL SCREEN GRAB

AURORA | The Aurora Public Schools board will consider options for bringing in outside help next month to improve trust between members despite some directors recently questioning whether the effort would even be worthwhile.

The school board has struggled to reach consensus on a number of issues, a rift that has become more apparent in recent months as it undertakes the important work of selecting the district’s next superintendent. At a meeting in early March, outside search firm HYA presented a report to the district that named board governance as one of the district’s top five challenges.

“Comments included that the Board does not appear to understand their role and the governance model, can be ineffective in their communication, unfocused, and have appeared divisive and not aligned on priorities resulting in the appearance to work against each other and district leadership,” the report said.

The board members did not contradict the finding at the meeting.

“It is hard to see it in writing of course, but not a surprise,” president Debbie Gerkin said in a later interview with the Sentinel. 

Unlike other local municipalities, the board’s disagreements are not fueled by partisan or even philosophical rancor. The board members have voiced similar opinions regarding the importance of supporting APS’ diverse student body and the need to improve conditions for teachers and staff, and almost all of the sitting board members were endorsed by the APS teacher’s union during their campaigns.

Gerkin was vague about what caused the board’s issues, but she said the members were committed to addressing their challenges.

That led to an emotional conversation near the end of the board’s March 21 meeting, as the panel discussed working with either the Colorado Association of School Boards or another outside organization to provide support to the board that could include team-building work, professional development and diversity, equity and inclusion training.

Gerkin suggested that the work could start with the board’s already scheduled retreat in August, though board member Tramaine Duncan questioned whether it would be worthwhile to start something before this fall’s school board election.

The first terms of three of the board’s seven members — Nichelle Ortiz, Stephanie Mason and Vicki Reinhard — expire in December. Mason has signaled that she does not plan to run again.

“I don’t really want to commit to anything else that’s going to have more time away from my family,” Duncan said. That’s just where I’m at. We don’t get paid for this job, there’s a lot of emotional stress that goes into this job, there’s people that may or may not be here after November of this year so I don’t really want us to go through a kumbaya together and have to do it again in November with a whole new reiteration of the board. I don’t want to waste my time.”

Duncan also said he was frustrated by being misidentified during board roll call votes and by district employees misspelling his name in emails.

“I just, I have no interest,” he said. “That’s where I’m at personally.”

Ortiz said she was sympathetic to Duncan’s concerns about the election but she also wanted to be responsive to the issues raised in the HYA report.

“I don’t want to be negligent for the next six months,” she said.

She particularly said she would like the board to do some work on diversity, equity and inclusion and said she had an organization in mind that might be a good fit.

Board member Michael Carter said that he would support doing some type of trust building work but returned to Duncan’s comments.

“Sitting up here and putting in all this work and then feeling you’re being disrespected by your colleagues is difficult,” he said. “If we can find a way to come to an understanding regarding that respect, I’m in favor. But if all we’re going to do is go into our corners and come out swinging, I agree with him, I have no interest in that.”

Regardless of which board members are in office in six months, “the kids will still be here,” he said.

Reinhard said she agreed with points made around the dais and wondered if they could start something at the August retreat.

“There is a lack of trust here,” she said. “It’s a little heartbreaking that it’s become obvious enough that it’s not just us who recognize that. There is healing to be done in that respect.”

Duncan asked if the discussion could be tabled so that board members could research more options before voting on anything. Both he and Ortiz said they had other options in mind that they could bring to the board.

Mason questioned how effective bringing in an outside consultant would be, saying that the board has to look at “the root cause” of what’s driving the distrust.

“We can bring someone in here, but I don’t need another group of people who don’t know us to come in and tell us why we don’t trust each other,” she said. “I don’t need it. I need for us to look at ourselves and each other and look deep and speak the truth about why we don’t trust. And our community has a right to know why we don’t trust each other.”

In the next six months, she said she wants to make a real difference for students.

“I want to leave with my head up and say I did the work and I did my job being on this board,” she said. “And I need all of us together collectively to make that happen. I can’t do it by myself.”

Gerkin said that the board members could submit more options and that they could have another conversation about this during the next business meeting in April. She said that the board owes it to the district and the incoming superintendent to do the best job that it can.

“I know I have hurt people. I know I have not always been the best I can be,” she said. “I want to be different, I want to change that, I want us to work together. But I agree if we’re not committed it won’t work.”

Duncan said he wasn’t sure if the board was willing to be honest enough to address its issues, and that the only reason he is on the board is for the kids — the board members don’t need to like each other.

“We don’t have to be friends and pals,” Gerkin said.

“But we need to trust that you’re going to make the best decision for our kids,” Duncan said. “I don’t think we need to spend money for somebody to come in and work on our interpersonal issues for us to get there. I don’t think we need to do that, because we’re not going to be honest enough with ourselves for us to work together collaboratively as a team.”

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  1. In short, we hired a third party to evaluate the APS management school board competence and talent. Their findings were what we have witnessed for quite some time. These are a truly incomplete bunch voted in to run and make critical decisions involving out schools. We have watched this dysfunction for ourselves as they have destroyed what was a functioning school system, so what’s new?   

  2. The report found many on the APS board did not understand their job and so were not executing it at all or doing it well. That’s why any additional training and learning for the board is important and should not be casually dismissed by some.

  3. Having served on school boards for years I recognize this gentleman’s feelings, opposing opinions are not necessarily bad, respect and graciousness are good but I get the KUMBAYA reference, often it is the person who wishes to dominate the decision making who thinks there should be agreement with their thought process. Maintain independence…

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