Own Worst Enemy

Researchers: Jeffco leadership transition could hinder achievement goals

The Jeffco Public Schools’ search for a new superintendent may be in jeopardy even before the hunt for a new leader begins in earnest, education policy and leadership researchers told Chalkbeat Colorado.

And even the best thought-out transition plan between outgoing Superintendent Cindy Stevenson and whomever the board selects to take her place is likely to yield turnover at the district’s headquarters and schools, researchers said. A massive brain-drain could prevent the state’s second largest district from increasing its student achievement, as the board is seeking to do.

Increased media attention, rampant rumors and widespread distrust among the district’s community of parents, teachers, administrators and the board may make it difficult to attract a credible superintendent candidate, said Christine Campbell, policy director for the Center on Reinventing Public Education, or CRPE.

“Smart, hard working, outcome-driven people are not that interested in working in a system with a board that might be hard to understand or is akin to micromanaging,” she said.

The Jeffco board Tuesday night publicly interviewed two executive search firms it’s considering to aide in a nationwide search to replace Stevenson, who served as Jeffco’s chief for more than a decade.

The board is expected to ink a contract with either Ray and Associates or Proact Search next week.

Stevenson’s last day is Friday. She’s leaving the district sooner than expected after her relationship with the board’s new majority deteriorated. Stevenson had planned on retiring at the end of the school year. She made that announcement after the board’s new conservative majority was elected in November.

Board President Ken Witt said he expects to have a new superintendent selected — and hopefully in place — by the end of May. Several board members raised concerns with the firms about the timeline. But both companies agreed it was possible. 

Campbell contends if Jeffco’s board and the segments of community that feel disenfranchised aren’t able to publicly repair its relationship — and quickly — the district is likely to end up with a “manager” rather than an ambitious risk taker, which she believes Jeffco will need to fulfill the achievement goals the board has outlined.

Jeffco already outpaces the state’s averages in most academic achievement measures. But the district’s aggregate proficiency scores and growth rates have been flat for years.

“Right now,” she said, “[the board] is starting in a bad place.”

Even after a superintendent is hired, academic achievement might continue to stagnate — or drop — before improving, said Seattle Pacific University professor Tom Alsbury.

Alsbury has studied the relationship between board and superintendent turnover and academic achievement for more than a decade. His research, drawn from five decades of school board activity around the United States, suggests that when boards of education shift dramatically and when a superintendent transition takes place, it causes a ripple effect in personnel and policies that slow outcomes.

“Boards do matter,” Alsbury said.

Any new superintendent for Jeffco, Alsbury said, will likely be hired with a presumed mandate from the board.

“What we see, even now, before the new superintendent is hired, is concern at the central admin and  the principal level,” Alsbury said. “These people are evaluated by the superintendent. They have no tenure protections. What we see happening is a significant number of  highly effective people start to look for jobs else where, particularly where there are more stable districts.”

When principals leave, teachers follow, Alsbury said.

“We also see, when principals start to turn over, then we see teachers turn over,” he said. “They polish off the resume, and put it out there. And when they inevitably get job offers — especially the good ones — they say, ‘I’m going to take this chance.'”

Jeffco is the next …

Take a ride in an elevator at Jeffco’s headquarters during a board meeting and you’re likely to hear: “Jeffco is the new Dougco.”

In 2009, Dougco, short for Douglas County School District, saw its own conservative sweep of seats on its school board. That board ended its relationship with the teachers union, established a merit-pay system for educators and approved the state’s first voucher program, which is currently being debated in court.

Jeffco board observers charge that “the new majority is following the Dougco playbook.”

Controversy around Douglas County’s board has also sparked concerns that teachers and school leaders will abandon the district en masse. But district officials there argue that the teacher turnover rate is decreasing and is not large enough to warrant real concern.

In some ways, the apparent ideological divide on Jeffco’s board might bear even greater resemblance to the immediate past board of Denver Public Schools.

Prior to the November election, the DPS board was staunchly divided, 4-3, on issues such as support for charter schools, pay-for-performance, data driven accountability and closing low-performing schools. DPS observers regularly chastised the board for what they characterized as petty squabbles that yielded no improved academic outcomes for students. Several went so far as to assert Denver’s potential growth had been stalled out of fear of political retribution.

In a report, released earlier this month, by the Donnell-Kay Foundation found only one in every six students in DPS attended a quality school in 2013. One reason why, the report’s author said, was because of its governing board.

“DPS has to have been, over the last five years, overly political because of the divisiveness on the school board,” Alex Ooms said. “You often make choices, in a climate of difficult politics, you would not make otherwise.”

Boards across the nation face similar struggles, said David Bloomfield, a professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

“Organizations founder when there is instability,” Bloomfield said. “Like any corporation, where there is infighting and distraction among leadership, the organization loses direction.”

Jeffco board members and union leaders insist their teachers and administrators are professionals and classrooms won’t suffer. Everyone from the top down is focused on one thing: student performance.

But, amid conversations about issues that do impact student achievement such as the budget, teacher contract negotiations and a search for a new leader, a member of the board’s majority, Julie Williams has asked for a review of the district’s communication policies.

Williams’ request comes after a public exchange on the social media website Twitter between two members of the Jeffco PTA Michele Patterson and Shawna Fritzler. Their tweets reference Williams, Witt, the Jeffco PTA, and guns. The conversation does not include a specific threat against any member of the board, but it was enough to rattle Williams.

“We already have enough to worry about with the cyber bullying going on among our students,” Williams said in a statement. “This type of behavior is immature and is not the type of example we want to be for our children. This should be handled in the proper administrative manner as soon as possible.”

While both Patterson and Fritzler are members of the PTA, the conversation was exchanged from their personal accounts — not authorized Jeffco accounts.

“Very often small issues become causes for irreparable fracture,” Bloomfield said.

Big picture: Empower the district

The school boards that are most effective at boosting student achievement, according to research done by CRPE, are governing bodies that  focus on just a few things. They hire an executive to build a team to handle the rest.

The more hands-on a board is, the lesser the results, CRPE’s Campbell said.

“A board should really be very focused on a few responsibilities that might make them more effective,” she said. “Hiring-firing the superintendent, be accountable for school performance, focus on strategies and outcomes, reduce distractions. At the end of the day, looking across all types of governance models, what mattered most was the scope of the work.”

There are specific policies and practices the board can direct Jeffco to adopt or improve to smooth things over and keep its best teachers and administrators, CRPE’s Campbell said.

  • Promote autonomy: Make sure district professionals, especially school leaders, have control of their own staff, budget and curriculum. Establish a culture of valued professionals and their expertise.
  • Expand professional development: Give teachers the time and opportunity to leave the classroom to learn. Arrange teachers to visit other classrooms across the district and partner with teachers to share their work.
  • Create and maintain career ladders for central administrators.

In interviews and public statements, Witt has hinted he’s interested in exploring some of these exact policies, especially innovation schools.

However, in the three months since he’s been sworn in, Witt also has been repeatedly accused of micromanaging the district and overstepping his authority

Stevenson said she’s leaving in part because she felt she was unable to manage the district. And Tuesday, Witt wanted to personally release a letter to district staff reassuring stability and next steps. While his intentions may have been noble, members of the board’s minority cautioned him: direct communication with Jeffco staff isn’t the role of a board president.

Witt tabled the letter to review board policies.

Another piece of advice for the any new board, said Brooklyn College’s Bloomfield: go slow.

“I think the best change is always incremental,” he said.

Recalls tend to be fruitless

Experts Chalkbeat Colorado spoke with also had a few suggestions for members of the community who might find themselves opposed to the board’s new majority.

First: don’t attempt a recall. They rarely work, Alsbury said. Usually successful recalls only follow egregious abuses of power, like embezzlement. Stay active and wait for the next election cycle.

Second: be vigilant, but not forceful. Any large organized demonstration — especially by the teachers union — could backfire, Campbell suggested.

“It can be very distressing to live in a place where [a lot of change] is happening, whether you’re a teacher, a parent or just someone reading the paper,” she said. “Fight for what you really value” but appearing to resist change may not help the cause.

Third: don’t turn a rowboat into the Titanic, Bloomfield said.

He pointed to the co-location debate in New York Public Schools. The policy impacts only about 4 percent of the entire student body, Bloomfield said. But those who oppose the policy make it out to be a bigger inconvenience.

“That’s the kind of sensation that can ruin [a district],” he said.

Decision day

Unity prevails: Jeffco incumbents easily beat back challengers

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Meredith Van Deman signs the back of her 2014 mail-in ballot outside the Columbine Library in Littleton before turning it in.

The status quo has held in Jeffco Public Schools.

Two incumbents facing opposition easily defeated two challengers, ensuring that the governing board of the state’s second largest school district will remain united 5-0.

In District 1, incumbent Brad Rupert won by 20 percentage points over against Matt Van Gieson, a parent and former president of the parent teacher organization at a Jeffco charter school, Golden View Classical Academy.

In District 2, incumbent Susan Harmon claimed a similar margin over Erica Shields, a conservative Jeffco parent.

Current board president Ron Mitchell ran unopposed. The other two seats are not up for a vote this election.

The current board, supported in large part by the teachers union, was elected in 2015. That election, voters recalled three conservative board members and voted in five new members who have since hired a new superintendent, signed an extended contract with the teachers union, given some pay raises and voted to close an elementary school.

The school board incumbents raised considerably more money than the challengers, including thousands of dollars from the teachers union.


Keeping the peace

Jeffco voters to decide whether school board will remain united or include dissenting voices

Students at Edgewater Elementary School in Jefferson County work on iPads during class.

With little controversy, no national media attention and control of the school board not at stake, this fall’s school board race in Jefferson County has centered on whether a board that is consistently united could use a dissenting voice.

Three of the five board of education seats are up for grabs, but only two of the incumbents have challengers — a single one in each race.

A win by the two challengers, both conservatives who oppose much of what the current board has done, would not change many of the votes or direction of the school district, but it could change the conversations. Some voters now say they are weighing whether to vote to keep the stability of the current board, which often vote unanimously, or whether more diversity of thought is needed. One question is whether different voices would repeat the drama of the previous, split, school board that saw conservative members ousted in a recall election.

“Everyone in Jeffco wants us to commit to maintaining civility,” said Ron Mitchell, the board president, who is the member running unopposed. “I don’t see that changing.”

Some who support the current board say even one dissenting voice could slow down progress, distract from the current work or create doubt in voters if the district asks for a tax increase soon.

“I believe that even one or two detractors on the board will stagnate progress,” said Jeffco parent Kelly Johnson, who helped recall previous board members. “Our district has already paid too much in lost opportunities with the chaos of the past.”

Erica Shields and Matt Van Gieson, the two challengers, say they want to work with the current board.

“We are not there to disrupt,” Shields said. “We are not about that. We don’t want to return to the old type of board mentality. We want to make things better.”

The incumbents have a huge money advantage.

Those current members running for re-election — Mitchell, Susan Harmon and Brad Rupert — supported by the teachers union, have raised large amounts of money as of the last finance reports filed two weeks ago. The two in the contested race each had more than $40,000 raised, compared to about $3,200 raised by Shields and $2,300 raised by Van Gieson.

Mailers and yard signs for the incumbents advocate for all three together.

Since their election two years ago, the current board members have hired a new superintendent in Jason Glass, approved an extended contract with teachers union, given teachers a pay raise and advocated for better school funding.

Opponents Shields and Van Gieson say, recent events pushed them to consider running for school board independently, but now both also are running together, asking for voters to support them as a team.

Shields said she is running after realizing the work she does as a volunteer helping homeless people doesn’t address the root causes of the problem, which she now sees as a lack of good education opportunities for everyone.

Van Gieson, said that he hears too often from people who feel they no longer have a voice on the current school board. He said he official decided he wanted to run after a spring board meeting in which several community members asked the board not to close their schools.

School closures have not been a major issue for voters, most say, because Glass has said he would pause any school closure recommendations until district officials can create a better system for evaluating if a school should close.

Instead, campaign messages and questions at forums have centered on typical political divisions such the sources of campaign contributions, the support of teachers and positions on charter schools or private school vouchers.

“Sometimes I think there are issues created by others that are really just divisive wedges,” Mitchell said. “For example, charter schools. Every year we seem to try to drive the charter school wedge into the election.”

Mitchell said the current board is not against charters schools. In previous board discussions, Jeffco board members have expressed a desire for more authority to decide if a charter application is good enough for Jeffco, instead of just legally meeting its requirements to open.

Van Gieson, who is on the parent-teacher organization of a charter school in Jeffco, said he thinks charter schools are treated differently in Jeffco, and if elected, wants to help all schools have similar accountability.

“Where a charter school has to come in front of the board and answer for lower achievement, it would be beneficial to do the same things for neighborhood schools,” Van Gieson said.

The campaign also has included an increased focused on equity.

Joel Newton, founder of the local nonprofit Edgewater Collective, joined Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children to hosted, for the first time, a forum just for discussions on the needs of diverse learners. In previous years, the Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children has hosted a similar forum alone.

“I don’t think that was part of the conversation in the past,” Newton said. “The interesting thing now is both sides have a piece of the puzzle. One side talks about school choice…the other side makes the argument that poverty is the real issue.”

Glass, the superintendent, has emphasized the importance of the school district working with community partners to tackle poverty and other out-of-school factors that impact learning.

Tony Leffert, a Jeffco parent who lives in Golden and supports the new superintendent, said the issue on his mind is keeping the current board on track. He said adding a dissenting voice to the board, could set up a possibility for the minority opinion to take control of the board in two years.

“Given the last school board election that we had, every school board election is important in Jeffco going forward,” Leffert said. “We do not want a repeat of that again.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to note that a forum on the needs of diverse learners, which was hosted for the first time with the Edgewater Collective, has been hosted in the past by Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children.