Tessa Kirchner reflects on helping steer Eagle County Schools through tumultuous times
Kirchner, who will rotate off the board at the end of the year, says she'll still remain involved with local schools
EAGLE — If you have questions about education, Tessa Kirchner said you’ll find answers in a classroom.
Kirchner had all sorts of questions. Her quest for answers dropped her into some of the school district’s most tumultuous times over the last eight years. She helped lead Eagle County Schools through massive layoffs and budget cuts during the Great Recession, both scorched earth and smooth sailing over superintendent hires and fires, and three tax-increase requests — two successful, one resulting in more scorched earth. All “lively times,” Kirchner says smiling, noting that it’s now relatively smooth sailing for the district in 2019.
Through it all, the goal remains the same — put a great teacher in front of every classroom, Kirchner said.
Kirchner’s passion about public education is not waning, but her time is. She is term-limited and will rotate off the board at the end of this year.
You remember the Great Recession. Most of us question what was so great about it. Kirchner remembers it because she won her school board seat eight years ago. Before that, she spent four years attending every board meeting and work session.
She was fresh on the board as the economy continued to spiral. Like most of America’s body politic at the time, Eagle County’s electorate was cranky in 2011 and rejected a hastily-organized school tax proposal.
“That really tore the community apart. It took a long time to repair,” Kirchner said.
When that 2011 tax proposal went down in flames, the school district’s finances went down with it in the wake of state funding cuts. The school board members figured they’d have to cut 60-80 jobs to balance their budget. The cuts topped 90 jobs and myriad services, and the board raised fees. Talk ran to closing elementary schools, but it never happened.
“We’re so lucky to have all those great small schools. People are emotionally tied to them,” Kirchner said.
During those budget cut meetings, the school board met in the larger Eagle County building to accommodate the standing-room-only crowds begging the board to gore someone else’s ox.
Vail came collectively unglued when someone suggested closing Red Sandstone Elementary School. Avon Elementary parents packed those meetings, saying their community school is exactly that, and that 80% of their students walk to school.
“I began to wonder if should I wear the fireproof clothing or the shield to those meetings,” Kirchner said.
Instead of shields or Kevlar, she joined a few passionate souls to don the green vests favored by the Education Foundation of Eagle County, helping resurrect the organization to raise awareness and money for local schools. Along with generally advocating for public education, EFEC presents “Evening of the Stars,” an annual teacher recognition soiree and benefit. They head to a local school every month to present an Apple Award, honoring a teacher nominated by students and parents.
“Making those presentations is always amazing,” Kirchner said. “All those things help attract and retain great teachers.”
EFEC also helps explain how Colorado funds education, which helped EFEC local voters to tax their own taxes in 2016. That extra money bought all kinds of building construction and renovation projects and continues to pump money into the school district’s salaries.
“I was focused on laying that groundwork, and repairing the damage that had been done (during the 2011 tax election),” Kirchner said.
Kirchner has seen superintendents come and go. She was there as interim superintendent John Pacheco wound down his tenure. She was on the committee that recruited Dr. Sandra Smyser and on the board when it hired Dr. Jason Glass. Glass left for Jefferson County and the board hired his replacement, Dr. Carlos Ramirez. That ended quickly in upheaval and the board tapped district insider Phil Qualman. The waters have calmed, Kirchner said.
“We are not in crisis as we have been in the past,” Kirchner said.
Public education is changing, though, as the pendulum swings slowly away from testing to contending with the mental and emotional health of students, all while teachers try to impart all the other things students need to know.
“You cannot deny how much more we’re asking our teachers to do. Our teachers are working so hard, and are so dedicated,” Kirchner said.
Kirchner says she’ll stick with public education.
“We’ve been lucky to have good people on the board. I cannot imagine dropping off the scene completely,” she said.
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