Who Is In Charge

Jones a finalist for Vegas superintendent

Dwight Jones
Education Commissioner Dwight Jones discussed his status as one of three finalists for the Las Vegas, Nev., schools. Sept. 16, 2010.

Colorado Education Commissioner Dwight Jones confirmed Thursday afternoon that he’s one of three finalists for superintendent of the Clark County Schools in Las Vegas.

“I do plan to explore this opportunity,” Jones told reporters after the conclusion of a day-long State Board of Education meeting. Board members were informed earlier, and Jones said “they’ve been very supportive.”

The other two finalists announced by district officials in Las Vegas are Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District in Texas, and James Browder, superintendent of the Lee County, Fla., school district, which includes Fort Myers.

Jones said he and the other finalists will be in Las Vegas next week for two days of public meetings and interviews with school board members. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that a decision will be made in October. Jones said a question he’ll be looking to answer is “does the [Las Vegas] board have the appetite to push reform forward?”

A search firm approached him about the job a couple of months ago, Jones said. “I did not seek this out.” He added, “I resisted and resisted” but finally decided he needed to look at the opportunity. Clark County has “issues I’d love to tackle,” he said, calling the job “a tremendous opportunity worthy of exploration.”

The commissioner noted that he’s made no secret of one day wanting to become superintendent of a large urban district but stressed that he still enjoys his job in Colorado. “At some point I’ve wanted to work more closely with students and teachers.”

Speaking of his current position, Jones aid, “This has been a fairly difficult time. I continue to enjoy my work in Colorado. … It will be a tough decision for me. … If the position in Las Vegas is not a good fit, I will continue with enthusiasm and commitment to the myriad projects we have underway.”

Jones has been active commissioner

Jones, 48, the state’s education commissioner since June 2007, is widely credited with improving relations between the state Department of Education, local school districts and the Colorado Education Association. He’s been a central player in education reform efforts over the last three years, including the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, improved data systems, the new method for accrediting school districts, the educator effectiveness law and the ultimately unsuccessful Race to the Top bid. “I’m quite optimistic about where Colorado is,” he said.

“I think that Dwight has this unique blend of being a reformer and also being somebody that listens,” said Van Schoales, who heads the Denver-based Education Reform Now national advocacy group. “He’s recast the image of CDE, I think, in the eyes of not just districts but also lawmakers and community leaders.”

Jones began his career in education as a teacher in Junction City, Kansas, before becoming a principal in elementary, middle and high schools and then assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in the Wichita district.

He then became a vice president for the Edison Schools charter network and, in 2004, became assistant superintendent and later superintendent of the Fountain-Fort Carson School District south of Colorado Springs. He was recognized during his three-year tenure in the 7,400-student district for closing achievement gaps.

As commissioner, Jones works with 178 school districts educating 830,000 students.

Rumors have surfaced in recent months that Jones is interested in returning to a superintendent’s position. His wife, Jenifer Jones, earns a $110,000 salary as executive director for school turnaround efforts in Denver Public Schools. She’s been with DPS since Aug. 1, 2008.

Board supportive of Jones

Bob Schaffer
Bob Schaffer, R-4th District, chair of the State Board of Education

Bob Schaffer, R-4th District and chair of the state board, said, “We have encouraged the commissioner to develop Colorado’s profile as a reform-oriented state, with him as the leader of the effort, so it’s what you expect – the commissioner has done well in Colorado and is going to be noticed by states and districts in need of leadership outside of Colorado. My opinion is the commissioner has performed in an exemplary fashion.”

As it happened, the board discussed the commissioner’s review during an executive session Thursday, but Schaffer declined to discuss that.

Board member Elaine Gantz Berman, D-1st District, said, “All seven members of the board think he’s been a phenomenal commissioner, and we’ll support him if he is offered a job and wants to take it. If it were up to the board, he would stay as commissioner. We did his review today and it was exemplary. … I don’t think we expected him to stay beyond five years because he is ambitious and a very hard worker. He has gotten an awful lot done in the three-plus years he’s been here.”

Berman continued, “We’ve had absolutely no discussion about possible replacement because we believe that’s premature. Until – if and when – the commissioner is offered the job in Las Vegas, and if he were to accept it, that’s probably when we would begin discussions about a possible replacement and a search process.” Two board members, Republicans Randy DeHoff of the 6th District and Peggy Littleton of the 5th, are term limited and will be leaving the board after the election of replacements in November.

“We would not like to see him depart,” said Deb Fallin, spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association.

A snapshot of Clark County

If selected, Jones would replace Walt Rulffes, who announced plans to leave in March after 13 years with the Las Vegas district. Rulffes was the district’s chief finance officer before being named superintendent in 2006.

In 2009, Rulffes was named Superintendent of the Year by the Nevada Association of School Superintendents and, this year, he was one of four finalists for the National Superintendent of the Year.

Rulffes’ salary is $277,000, down from $307,000 after he took a voluntary 10 percent pay cut in October. Jones’ current pay is $223,860.

According to data on its website, the Clark County School District is the fifth largest in the U.S., with nearly 310,000 students, more than 350 schools, some 38,000 employees and an annual budget of about $2.9 billion.

For years, Clark County has led the nation in student growth and building schools. In 1998, Rulffes, then the district’s CFO, is credited with helping win passage of a $3.5 billion bond issue, one of the nation’s largest.

But enrollment dipped in fall 2009, the first time the district had reported a drop in its student count in 25 years. District leaders blamed the recession.

Announcement sparks speculation

As news reports began circulating today about the possibility of Jones’ leaving, some other names also began to talked about – possible replacements.

Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien led the state's Race to the Top effort.

Those names include Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, who will be leaving that job soon after the November election and who has made education a top priority, leading the state’s effort in Race to the Top.

Others include John Barry, the superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, and Mike Miles, who previously worked with Jones in Fountain-Fort Carson and who now heads Harrison School District 2. Both Barry and Miles have won praise for their reform efforts in high-poverty districts.

Miles said, “Dwight has been central to Colorado’s education reforms, and it would be great if we could keep him for a couple more years. I am not interested in the commissioner position should it become vacant.  Thanks for asking, though.”

Schoales, with Education Reform Now, adds another name to the list – Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who may be leaving that spot after the defeat of her patron, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fentry. Rhee’s parents live in Colorado.

He said Rhee’s national reputation for hard-nosed reform would be a plus for many State Board of Education members – though less enticing for the state teachers’ union.

“I think she would be a very attractive candidate because I think four of the seven would hire her in a second,” he said, though he added, “I think CEA would go nuts.”

Todd Engdahl and Nancy Mitchell reported and wrote this story.

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools

Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.