Profile: RFSD’s Pelland at home behind the scenes
November 11, 2015
For 20 years, Shannon Pelland has been a quiet force behind the scenes in the Roaring Fork School District.
With the notable exception of spearheading the $122 million bond issue that won voter approval Tuesday, her role as assistant superintendent and chief financial officer is a quiet one. That's just fine with her.
"I think if finance is going along the way you want it to, you can kind of just fade into the background, and I like it there," she said.
She finds plenty of satisfaction in the work itself.
"The finance part of my job is so interwoven with other things. It's about how we can use the resources we have to benefit student learning," she said. "What's more important than education? It is — or should be — the great equalizer in our country."
Pelland, née Barnes, was born and raised in Glenwood Springs. She fondly recalls summers at the Hot Springs Pool and winning free ice cream cones in the annual ping pong ball drop.
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"What I loved about growing up here is the strong sense of community, and it's still what I love about this area," she said. "While it's grown, it still has a small-town feel."
Her father, himself a native, was a certified public accountant, and her sister later bought out the family business.
"We're a family of math people," she observed.
Pelland met her future husband, John, a newcomer to the area, while she was still in high school. She graduated in 1981 and the pair began to date her first year of college at Colorado State University.
Although she started out as a wildlife biology major and considered training to be a science teacher, the math gene got the better of her and she ended up graduating in business administration with a focus on accounting before going to work for Ernst and Young in Denver.
After the birth of their two boys — DJ, now 26, and Will, now 23 — the family decided to move back to the Western Slope. In 1995, she took the position as RFSD finance director, not realizing she was settling in for the long haul.
NEVER A BORING DAY
"I was very excited about the position because I've always had a passion for education and I thought I could marry it with my background in finance, but I thought it was something I'd probably get bored at very quickly," she said. "I can honestly say in 20 years I've never had a boring day at this job."
It wasn't always easy working above former teachers and administrators, particularly when it came time for salary freezes and budget cuts.
"When I came back to the district it was at a time when they were really in financial straits," Pelland said. "I wasn't quite expecting what I got myself into, but I think I was able to gain the trust of a lot of staff in the district. Sometimes there's a feeling that finance people hide things, and my philosophy has always been that while some people may not agree with your decisions, you have to put it all out there."
This district has grown considerably since then. Pelland's title has changed as her responsibilities have grown, and she has outlasted most of the faculty she started with.
"It is such a strange feeling to be like the district office historian," she said.
That comes with a certain responsibility to provide context for newer administrators or board members without being completely chained to the past.
"It's honoring people's new ideas while helping them understand what went wrong the last time," she explained.
Education itself has come a long way since Pelland, now 52, was in school.
"When I was growing up, a lot of the education was around someone disseminating knowledge and me memorizing," she recalled. "I think teaching today is more of a two-way street. It's much more interactive."
"One thing that hasn't changed is funding for education, and that is a great source of frustration," she added.
MONEY WHERE HER MOUTH WAS
Pelland knows firsthand how long Glenwood Springs Elementary School has gone without a much-needed overhaul, and put some of her own money into the campaign to pass the bond to fix it — among numerous other improvements.
Throughout the process, she took questions from concerned citizens. The most common, in response to the plan for subsidized staff housing, was why the district can't just pay more. The answer, Pelland explained, is that with the vast majority of state funding already going to wages and a 25 percent cap on mill levy increases, they simply can't.
"We have been so lucky because our community have been able to step up for help, but I think we have a lot of work to do helping people understand school finance in this state, and the limitations of it," she said. "Teachers in our state don't make enough. That's the case around the country, but it's particularly true here. Colorado is going to have to do something to be competitive salary-wise, or it's going to affect our ability to attract good teachers."
Why not go elsewhere? Because, while she can pick out a folk tune on her guitar anywhere, for hiking, biking, snowshoeing, skiing and swimming, not all towns are created equal.
"I can't think of any place I'd rather be," she said.