Q&A with Andrew Heppelmann, candidate for 2-year term on Steamboat Springs School Board
Brief bio: I served 33 years in the military, retiring in 2014 as a colonel. I served the final 14 years in Europe working with NATO partners and aspirants, focusing on interoperability and defense reform. I have created and reformed institutions across Eastern Europe, always looking to metrics and assessments, so that I could demonstrate to my leadership that I was spending the American Taxpayer’s money wisely.
Q. Why are you running for school board?
A. I think the district is drifting from its two fundamental, “can’t fail” tasks. 1) Teach the kids and 2) keep them safe. It’s time we invest in our two priorities and then understand that we will have to accept risk in other areas. Comprehensive studies clearly demonstrate that teacher quality, learning strategies and teaching strategies have the strongest correlations to academic excellence. This should come as no surprise, and it suggests we should jealously develop and retain our teaching talent through aggressive investment and training. Regarding safety, we have more than $800,000 in restorative justice grants this year and should develop metrics regarding behavioral responses to determine if this disciplinary system is effective. Once focused on these two tasks, we owe the taxpayer a report on our progress. This can be accomplished through a clear mission statement and monitored through well-defined metrics.
Q. Please describe any involvement you’ve had with the local school district or any background or experience you have with education?
A. I’m a parent of two district students. I’ve been through a variety of educational models, a one-year college prep course — the Military Prep School for West Point; West Point military academy; a master’s program in international relations at Denver University; the Romanian National Defense College (a Romanian institution to prepare their national leadership to implement security policy); and a Distance Learning Globalization master’s program at Tufts University. Being on the school board isn’t about educational experience, the district is full of experts in that area. The school board should be focused on organizational leadership. This means listening to experts within the district at all levels and then making value investments to set conditions for success. We are in a resource-constrained environment and need to make tough choices to get the most out of our investment.
Q. What do you believe the role of a school board member should be in relationship to administration and staff? To parents and students?
A. The school board represents and answers to the parents and students. It is their job to provide strategic vision for the district and make the tough choices regarding investment of taxpayer dollars. It is the board’s job to determine what metrics will be used for assessments and report back to the taxpayer on district performance. The board must communicate with the community through all possible methods, including letters to the editor and emailed bilingual newsletters. We should also offer bilingual paper copies to be mailed for those less internet savvy. It is critical that the board push controversial issues out into public forum for debate.
Q. How do you think schools should measure student achievement?
A. I am more interested in measuring progress rather than achievement. Our kids start out with so many advantages that asking them to be generally above average is setting a low bar. The random list of awards we receive in any given year is frankly not an assessment until we understand what metrics are used in determining the award and how those metrics apply to our mission statement. Test scores are important but not the only answer. Things like club memberships, extracurricular activities and sports participation all correlate with academic performance and mental and emotional health. From a safety perspective, bullying, classroom disorder and incidents requiring law enforcement intervention are all important indicators of results. Our goal, after all, is to produce well-rounded, fearless learners and that means inspiring them to always take on new challenges. School districts continually have to grapple with budget and funding shortfalls.
Q. School districts continually have to grapple with budget funding shortfalls. Are there areas where you think the district can trim its budget?
A. One of our “can’t fail” missions is education of the students. We must resource that first and then figure out the rest. That means aggressively recruiting and retaining talent — those who teach — that group of individuals in the district that interfaces daily and directly with the students. At the same time, we live in a resource-constrained environment. That means we need to accept risk in other areas if we agree that we can’t fail at the education task. The truth is accepting risk does not mean paying unreasonable wages; it just means acknowledging that our priority is teachers. Look at all the location-neutral families rolling in, Steamboat sells itself, and I would argue that there are more motivators to live in Steamboat than just money.
Q. What are the three greatest challenges facing the Steamboat Springs School District?
A. Our three greatest challenges are a lack of focus, an unwillingness to accept risk in less important tasks and accounting issues, which obscure our actual spending. Without a clear mission statement, the district is adrift. Our current mission statement in the strategic plan lacks the words safety, academic excellence, inspiration and confidence. We should be doing everything we can to recruit the best and brightest teachers and accept risk in other areas of our budget. I’m also concerned with the way out-of-district student revenue is spent, not necessarily with their attendance. While we don’t hire additional teachers to accommodate them, the district staff is manned with the $900,000 the out-of-district students generate. This means our district staff is not built from our organic student load but rather from maxing out every teacher’s classroom. I think that means we can’t afford smaller classes unless we get rid of administrative overhead costs or raise taxes.
Q. Describe your vision for a new pre-K through eighth grade school.
A. The board has suggested beginning with pre-K to fifth grade and then allowing a class to matriculate each successive year until after three years we will have a pre-K to eighth grade population. This is fundamentally ill-conceived. If middle school crowding is our biggest challenge, why are we allowing it to persist? Minimally, we should move pre-K to sixth grade (What is gained by not moving sixth grade?) and survey parents of seventh and eighth graders asking if they want to move their child immediately. Even if we only move 50% of those grades, we have solved our middle school challenge.
Q. If the school bond fails, what do you think are the school district’s next steps?
A. First, we need to revisit the CC4E recommendations. They are accepted by the community as well thought out and justified by research. We should then consider an open source demographics report, so we as a community can debate the assumptions. We have some low-income housing on the horizon. This will generate new students. We have an aging population. Between 2010 and 2017, the U.S. Census says we have lost 602 households between the age of 25 and 42 but gained 345 households who are 65 or older. This, I think, is why we’ve got a declining birthrate in the district. Despite a growing population, housing is becoming less attainable for families with children. I don’t know what the answer is regarding future growth, but I do know we’ve lost almost 100 students in the past few years. Once we gain consensus on facts and assumptions, we can collectively map a way forward.
Q. The district continues to be ranked among the top 10 districts in the state academically. In what ways do you think the school board can foster even more academic achievement?
A. Where would you like to see improvement? Our lack of a clear mission and metrics is causing us to overlook the obvious. Our free and reduced lunch numbers — an income metric — in high school are 17%, and it is well documented that free and reduced lunch correlates to SAT scores that are 160 points lower. Despite the requirement for SAT scores from a majority of colleges, we have no free SAT prep courses. How can we suggest we’re supporting our entire student demographic when we ask for out-of-pocket payments to prepare for college admissions. We have no classes scheduled 8th hour in the high school, there is no reason we couldn’t staff a SAT study hall, with SAT prep material available to anyone who wants to attend and staff supervision available to answer questions.
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