Pondering performance

His job on the line, Jeffco superintendent says he’s been given no hint of problems

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Dan McMinimee at a meeting with Jeffco parents, teachers, and community members after being named finalist for the Jeffco superintendent job.

Controversy surrounded Dan McMinimee’s summer 2014 hiring as superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools, the state’s second largest school district.

Some worried he was inexperienced, that he would be paid too much and that he would bring many of the conservative, market-based reforms of the Douglas County school district, where he previously worked.

Yet while working under two completely different school boards in less than three years — one that hired him and one that took over after a heated recall campaign — McMinimee has focused on his district work and gotten things done, various people agree.

That may not be enough to save his job.

The Jeffco school board is scheduled to vote Thursday night on launching a search for a new superintendent, in effect telling McMinimee he will no longer be needed after his contract expires at the end of June.

The school board’s discussion about McMinimee — which included two closed-door meetings — didn’t start over concerns with McMinimee’s performance, said Ron Mitchell, chairman of the school board. He declined to say what did prompt the talks.

“I think there are a lot of things Dan McMinimee has done for Jeffco schools and has done well,” Mitchell said. “The politics of Jeffco have been challenging. I honestly believe that Dan worked hard to serve the current board.”

That’s what’s puzzling, McMinimee told Chalkbeat Wednesday afternoon.

“There’s been no indication that there was a problem,” McMinimee said. “There’s been a big change in the climate since I arrived. I thought we were moving forward.”

In his time as superintendent, McMinimee has helped Jeffco create a new strategic vision, increased the number of college classes high school students take and moved the district to a student-based budget system that gave principals more control over how to spend money in their schools. His team has reformed the way teachers get paid — twice — and helped negotiate a longer contract for teachers.

The district’s teachers union — which vehemently opposed the the board members who hired McMinimee — did not respond to a request for a comment about McMinimee’s work or potential departure.

It’s not uncommon for districts to change superintendents often — or for newly elected school boards to want their own person in the job.

Most superintendents tend to stay in their roles for about three years, and in some years as many of 25 percent of Colorado’s school districts are searching for new superintendents, said Mark DeVoti, assistant executive director for the Colorado Association of School Boards. School board turnover is one of many factors that plays into that, he said.

Leonor Lucero, a mother of two Jeffco students, said she’s disappointed the board is considering breaking ties with McMinimee.

“Dan has worked well with both boards,” said Lucero, who opposed the recall of conservative school board members who hired McMinimee. “He’s not controversial. He’s working with them not against them.”

She said she wishes the board would keep McMinimee to give the district some stability needed after district setbacks including when voters in November turned down the school district’s two ballot measures asking for tax increases.

“The school district has gone through a lot,” Lucero said. “We’ve had a recall, a whole new school board starting from scratch, the failing of the 3A and 3B ballot measures… and there’s a new election coming up. I think they should just let Jeffco settle.”

The board finalized an evaluation in September used to determine if McMinimee was eligible for up to $40,000 in bonuses tied to district goals. The board found McMinimee helped the district reach more than half of the goals, including raising scores on state tests and on the ACT test, and creating school accountability teams at every district school.

McMinimee received the lowest scores of partially effective on three out of the 12 goals including one related to creating a new charter school application process, and for mixed results increasing the number of third-graders meeting or exceeding expectations in reading. Based on the review, McMinimee received $20,000 in performance pay.

Yet the board was not entirely pleased with McMinimee’s a draft of his suggested goals late last year, asking for more goals that can be tied data, and suggesting some goals sounded more like job expectations and not additional goals for bonuses.

 

One of McMinimee’s bigger reforms in Jeffco involved turning two high schools into seventh through 12th grade schools in a reconfiguration of two boundary areas on the eastern side of the district where a larger number of students are low-income and English language learners.

Joel Newton, executive director of the Edgewater Collective, which is working with schools that have been affected by those changes, also said he’s happy with McMinimee’s work.

“I have been very impressed by his leadership skills in our area specifically and in our efforts,” Newton said. “He’s been very focused on student achievement and building bridges. He’s been very visible in our area.”

McMinimee’s contract will expire June 30 unless the board notifies him of an extension by March 31.

Asked if he expects to serve the remainder of his contract, McMinimee said it’s up to the board for now.

“It’s a hard position to be in when you’re no longer focused on the future,” McMinimee said. “When a CEO is removed from a major company or a head coach is removed from a team, they don’t stay around for spring practice or for the next six months.”

The work in the months ahead includes budgeting, including finding ways to raise teacher salaries for negotiation discussions and making cuts after the loss of the school tax measures, hiring of principals and district staff as well as adjusting programs for next year.

The challenge in Jeffco has also been trying to bridge a community that was divided by a divisive recall election. But it’s a large geographic area with too many people who may never completely agree on the district’s philosophy, McMinimee said.

“For me if we could all get to the point of focusing on student achievement and opportunity, that would be the goal,” McMinimee said. “I still think we’re a ways from that, and I’m not sure that one person is responsible for that.”

This story has been updated to include updated data provided by Mark DeVoti about the average time superintendents stay in their role.

petition drive

School chiefs in Memphis, Nashville join education leaders urging protection of ‘Dreamers’ under Trump

The superintendents of Tennessee’s two largest school districts are among 1,500 education leaders to sign a petition asking for continued protection from deportation for “Dreamers,” young people brought to the U.S. as children.

Dorsey Hopson

Dorsey Hopson of Shelby County Schools and Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools are among chiefs of at least 15 urban districts to sign the letter. Also joining the campaign are at least 30 educators from mostly Memphis and Nashville, as well as leaders from charter and nonprofit organizations and teacher’s unions from across the nation.

The petition was released this week before Donald Trump’s inauguration on Friday as the nation’s 45th president. During his presidential campaign, Trump vowed to do away with the federal policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Policy, or DACA, as part of a crackdown on illegal immigration. However, he recently told Time magazine that he would “work something out” for people known as “Dreamers,” so named for the failed DREAM Act legislation that would provide a path toward citizenship.

The petition calls DACA “crucially important to public education across the country” and also urges passage of the DREAM Act. The drive was organized by Stand for Children, a nonprofit group that advocates for education equity in 11 states, including Tennessee.

Cardell Orrin, director of Stand for Children in Memphis, said the signatures show that “leaders in Nashville and Memphis care about what’s happening with our kids and want to see the dream continue for Dreamers.”

He added that school leaders are mobilized to work together in behalf of students if Trump attempts to do away with DACA.

“There may not be as many undocumented students here as in some of the others states (such as) Texas or Arizona. But this could still have great impact on kids in Tennessee,” Orrin said.

Among other Tennesseans signing the petition as of Friday were:

  • Marcus Robinson chief executive officer, Memphis Education Fund
  • Maya Bugg, chief executive officer, Tennessee Charter School Center
  • Brian Gilson, chief people officer, Achievement Schools, Memphis
  • Sonji Branch, affiliate director, Communities in Schools of Tennessee
  • Sylvia Flowers, executive director of educator talent, Tennessee Department of Education
  • Ginnae Harley, federal programs director, Knox County Schools

Read what Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher.


 

moving on

Jeffco school board votes to launch search for new superintendent

PHOTO: Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post
JeffCo Public Schools Superintendent Dan McMinimee, at his office, in 2014 during his second week on the job.

Citing a desire to seek out a more effective leader and denying that politics were at play, Jefferson County school board members voted unanimously Thursday to launch a search for a new superintendent.

The vote comes a little more than a year after all five board members were sworn in after a contentious recall election that ousted the members that hired current superintendent Dan McMinimee.

The governing board of the state’s second largest school district expressed its desire to let McMinimee serve out the six months left on his contract.

Last month, the board met twice in executive session, including once at a conference in Colorado Springs, to talk about whether to renew McMinimee’s contract.

Board members on Thursday each made statements, some reading prepared remarks, before the vote. The board members, seeking to address the community, denied that any decision was made behind closed doors, outlined what they value in a leader and insisted their decision was not political.

“It’s true we’ve been through difficulties, but children in our schools can’t afford for adults to just let things settle,” said board member Brad Rupert. “We’ve got problems to solve.”

Board members said they needed to see if there was another leader who might be more effective. In outlining their desires for qualities of a new leader, they talked about looking for someone with experience as an educator, who is inspiring and a good communicator.

Board member Susan Harmon said she struggled with the decision but pointed out that although McMinimee has done good work, some people still don’t trust him or the district.

“How do you shake distrust? How do you change perception?” Harmon asked. “Perception unfortunately matters.”

After the vote, a district spokeswoman said McMinimee had signed up to speak during a public comment period near the meeting’s end. But he did not take the microphone. McMinimee left the meeting without speaking with reporters.

Of seven people who spoke about the superintendent during public comment, four were against launching a search for a new superintendent. Three who spoke in support of a new superintendent said it was not based on McMinimee’s performance, but based on the original process in which he was hired.

One woman who supported the search for a new superintendent, said she “condemned” the past process in 2014 because she said it was “predetermined.”

One speaker, Jim Fernald, who supported retaining McMinimee, said McMinimee succeeded despite being put in an “impossible situation,” and said that justifying looking for a new leader because of a search process three years ago is not appropriate.

“I find this to be an incredibly weak argument,” Fernald said. “Everyone knows if you vote against retaining Dan that you’re doing it to spite the previous board and their supporters. This board should go on record as rising above the pettiness.”

John Ford, president of the Jefferson County Education Association, the teachers union, spoke in favor of launching a search for a new superintendent, saying that the process that led to McMinimee’s hiring was “one of the failures of the previous board.”

“We need a fair and open process,” Ford said. “JCEA looks forward to ensuring and entrusting you with that mission. Listen to the voice of the classroom teacher to help provide input for what our students deserve.”

McMinimee, who was the sole finalist for the job, was hired in the summer of 2014 by a board majority made up of the three members that were the target of a recall in 2015. During his time leading the district, McMinimee, among other things, has helped lead the work on the district’s new strategic plan, reorganized two groups of schools on the district’s eastern boundary and increased school level autonomy over budgets.

On Wednesday McMinimee told Chalkbeat he was puzzled about why the board was considering looking for a new superintendent, saying he had not been given any indication that they had a problem with his work.

He did not speak during the board discussion Thursday.

According to McMinimee’s contract language, the board will not need a separate vote to end his $220,000-a-year contract. If McMinimee doesn’t receive notification of a contract renewal by the end of March, the contract will automatically expire June 30.

If the board wanted to part ways with McMinimee before his contract expires without attempting to fire him with cause, the district would need to pay him the amount of one year’s base salary, according to his contract. If the superintendent wants to terminate the contract, he would have to give the board six months notice or be charged for damages.

The board directed the human resources chief to find a search firm that will create a process that allows for community input in the search process.

The new district leader will face the challenge of the district’s budget after county voters rejected two tax measures in November.

Three of five Jeffco school board members are up for re-election in November, meaning it’s possible the board majority might change again after that election.