Dr. Jesús Rodríguez, Roaring Fork Schools superintendent, was left out of board discussions exploring the possibility of down payment assistance to retain and attract strong leaders in his role. Photo by Jeanne Souldern

I cover the school board beat for The Sopris Sun, and a couple of weeks ago, I started hearing some buzz coming through the community grapevine. As a reporter, if you cover any type of government entity, there is always speculation of some sort. That’s why you attend meetings, make requests for interviews and go to the source to get the facts.

What I was hearing, a few days before the March 15 school board meeting, had a different tone with accusatory social media posts, far-reaching group texts and an opinion column in a local newspaper with harsh criticism directed toward Superintendent Rodríguez and school board members.

The outrage was accompanied by misinformation. A couple of board members received texts saying things like, “Hey, we heard you’re buying the superintendent a house. I can’t believe you’re doing that!”

The grains of truth were that board members were looking into possible solutions to secure housing for Dr. Rodríguez and future Roaring Fork Schools superintendents.

One option the board put forward was downpayment assistance of up to $500,000 for the superintendent to purchase a home within the district. In the interim, the board would talk to people and solicit feedback, knowing that people would have opinions, and use that to inform the board.

On March 17, I spoke with Roaring Fork Schools Board President Kathryn Kuhlenberg via telephone and she assured me that the number was not pulled out of a hat.

Last spring, the firm that conducted the nationwide superintendent search made it clear to the board that they needed to seriously consider housing assistance for the superintendent because of the extremely high cost of living in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Currently, buying a home here for most people is an unattainable dream. When will the area’s housing bubble burst? At the moment, it seems to be fashioned from impenetrable titanium. Last year it became clear, with housing prices climbing, that solutions would be complex, but the intention — then and now — is that the board look into ideas for how housing could be secured for a superintendent in the future.

One piece of grist for the rumor mill last week was that Rodríguez asked the board for housing. According to Kuhlenberg, this is not true. Throughout this time, the board made an intentional effort to exclude Rodríguez from their conversations, noting that any potential beneficiary of a housing program should not have undue influence, one way or the other.

Ahead of the March 1 school board meeting, Kuhlenberg included a memo in the board packet. She admits it was somewhat broad and vague because the board wanted the specifics of a housing proposal to come from district staff and community input.

The misinformation rollout that had gained momentum a few days before the March 15 meeting became unstoppable.

On March 14, the day before the board meeting, an op-ed by a district parent appeared in a local newspaper. The author referenced “a $500,000 handout for down payment assistance to the superintendent” as if it was a done deal.

Kuhlenberg commented on March 15 that among written public comments from community members, “there were a lot” of racist comments about Rodriguez’s Latino heritage that she described as “disturbing and disgusting.”

Honestly, is this really who we want to be as a community? And in a public school district where half of our students are of Latino heritage? For me, the most troubling question is: What message does that send to all of our students?

Kuhlenberg acknowledges that messaging and communications from the board to the community could have been handled better and that there’s work to be done around messaging, communications and transparency. She also shared that she received many supportive responses from community members saying they understand how difficult it is to hire leaders in this Valley.

A March 22 housing summit held in Aspen and led by Habitat for Humanity President Gail Schwartz worked with other community partners to find collaborative solutions for housing in the Roaring Fork Valley.

A lingering question for me is how do we open dialogue with one another about community and inclusion for all? Let’s work on that too, please.