Jeffco superintendent announces she’ll leave at end of February, citing distrust from new board majority

Jeffco Public Schools’ Superintendent Cindy Stevenson didn’t want her exit to happen this way.

“My plan would have been to make sense of all of this for the community,” she said.

Get through the state’s standardized tests in March. Meet with stakeholders. Bow out gracefully, albeit sooner than her scheduled June retirement.

Instead, she announced her Feb. 21 exit to the district’s board of education and a packed room of about 250 anxious supporters at an 8 a.m. Saturday meeting, originally scheduled to discuss the suburban district’s budget.

An executive session to discuss a personnel issue regarding Stevenson was added to Saturday’s agenda at the end of the board’s Thursday meeting. But details — even for some board members —were scarce. Rumors flew through the district Friday: Stevenson, who has led the district for 12 years, would be fired; The board is going to buy out her contract; She’ll be put on administrative leave.

In the end, it was Stevenson who engaged the board’s conservative majority, elected in November, about leaving earlier than expected, she said in her statement, which was interrupted by tears, several rounds of applause and standing ovations.

“I can’t lead, I can’t move the district forward,” Stevenson said. “They do not trust me.”

Leaving early would be best for the district, she said.

“My issue is serving you, the community, most importantly the children,” she said.

Despite an effort by board president Ken Witt to proceed to a discussion of the budget, the crowd reacted angrily.

The crowd chanted for respect and a recall of the board’s new majority.

A member of the board’s minority, Lesley Dahlkemper, had a few choice words herself.

“Let’s be clear, this is about the new board majority,” she said. “I want to ask the board: how this is good for the 85,000 kids of Jeffco.”

A supporter of Cindy Stevenson stands during Stevenon’s speech announcing her sooner-than-expected exit. (Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN )

The meeting, which was expected to run through the early afternoon, ended before 8:30 a.m.

Tensions have risen between the board and some members of Jefferson County since the board’s new conservative majority was elected in November. Observers point to the board hiring outside counsel and accuse the board of unpublicized closed door meetings.

“They’ve broken how many sunshine laws?” Barb Bares, principal of Manning School, asked rhetorically after the meeting adjourned.

After the meeting ended, parents, teacher and administrators stood around — shocked. Some gathered around Stevenson, Dahlkemper and board member Jill Fellman.

“I’m just sick at the loss,” said Jeffco parent Kelly Johnson, who co-chaired the district’s 2012 mill and bond campaign. “There’s a great deal of anxiety. I feel like we have no one guiding the ship. Our kids are in limbo. And the persons I most trust — the teachers, the principals, administrators — they’re in limbo too.”

Lakewood principal Ron Castagna likened the board’s majority to school yard bullies.

“This is about dismantling what we’ve spent years here developing,” he said. “This board is running around like a bunch of rats. The most unethical group. They’ve taking their gold and are selling out our kids.”

Jeffco is commonly revered as one of the state’s best school districts. Until this year, it was the state’s largest. Students routinely outperform state averages on standardized tests.

Teachers, administrators and board members agree Jeffco will continue to provide an “excellent” education, the question now is how.

“We have to be mindful we have 85,000 students and 12,000 employees,” Fellman said. “We need to keep the district going.”

Board member Julie Williams agreed.

“I think Jeffco is strong and it will carry on,” she said. But as a member of the majority, she was short on specifics of what’s next for the district. “We’ll continue to do our good work.”

According to board president Witt, no interim superintendent has been named. He said he’ll expect the Stevenson’s deputies, including the academic and financial officers, to report directly to the board.