ARVADA — Wanted: Proven leader for large suburban school district. Five years of classroom experience a must. Exceptional communication skills, working knowledge of how to manage a multi-million dollar budget and previous experience negotiating contracts with labor organizations imperative. Should be detailed-orientated, student-driven, able to understand large amounts of data. Advanced degrees in education preferable. Must be able to mend fences.
That’s the description of the kind of superintendent Jefferson County teachers, parents, and students painted Wednesday night when they met with the superintendent search firm, Ray and Associates, Inc.
The meetings at Arvada West High School concluded two days of conversations the search firm, contracted by the Jeffco Public Schools board of education, held with individuals interested in the hunt for a new leader.
The suburban school district, west of Denver, hopes to have a new leader chosen by May. The search comes after Cindy Stevenson, who led the district for 12 years, left abruptly in February. Stevenson announced her plans to retire at the end of the school year after a new conservative majority was elected last fall. She said her decision to leave early was born out of distrust between herself and the board’s majority.
The tension between Stevenson and the board has spilled out to a portion of the Jefferson County community. While the breadth of the apprehension was not evident at the evening meeting — the size of the crowd was far less then the hundreds who have become regulars at board meetings — the depth was apparent. Some teachers and parents who spoke out against the board declined to give their name to a report out of fear of retribution.
Whoever the board chooses to lead the district will have to be able to bridge the widening division between some portions of the Jeffco community and the board’s majority, those in attendance said — repeatedly — Wednesday.
“He or she is going to have to find a way to unify the district,” said one parent.
Some participants feared the superintendent search would drive a deeper wedge between the district’s community. They questioned the search firm: Had they already began identifying candidates? Has the board’s majority already made their decision?
No, said Bill Newman, executive director of Ray and Associates.
Newman continued, the process of hiring a superintendent can be healing for a split board of directors. He hopes his company’s process of hiring, which relies on individual and team work among the board, will provide that opportunity.
“We hope [the board and new superintendent] will become a team of six,” Newman said.
Researchers have routinely concluded hiring a superintendent is the most important role of a school board. And a weak transition between leaders could hinder a district.
Other issues the new superintendent will have to navigate include leading contract negations with the district’s unions, shepherding new projects like teacher evaluations and administering new tests that will be conducted on computers and mobile devices. The superintendent will also be in charge of a nearly-billion dollar budget, community members said.
The new leader will also to develop a detailed understanding of Jefferson County and the many different communities it serves. The district sprawls from north-Littleton to south-Westminster and west from Edgewater into the foothills of Conifer, teachers and parents said.
“Every building in the district has its own life, its own culture,” said Debbie Millard, a parent and counselor at Bear Creek K-8. “Whoever is selected needs to be in those buildings. They have to know the unique struggles and successes. They have to know the school’s heartbeat.”
Parents and teachers agreed a leader with new ideas could be beneficial for the district, especially for some of the district’s more urban schools that border Denver and are lower-performing than more affluent schools deep in the suburbs.
“Those schools sometimes don’t have a large voice,” said Michele Bonfoey, a parent and teacher at Arvada West said. “We need to think about them sometimes more then we think about the schools that are doing well, because they won’t speak up for themselves.”
But a one-size-fits-all agenda pushing superintendent would face backlash, those in the school’s auditorium said.
“Picking up the newest fad will not work in this district,” a teacher said.
A crucial decision for the board and its new superintendent will be around how much “reform” the district needs, Newman said. He said he’ll coach the board to ask questions that will address what candidates have accomplished in previous positions rather than what they’d like to accomplish in Jeffco in order to gauge possible proven strategies that could yield the kind of outcomes the board wants.
The team from Ray and Associates will present its findings based on the community forums, an online survey and interviews with board members at the board’s April 3 meeting. The board will then develop an official job description and identify characteristics and skills they want to see in candidates. Ray and Associates will then screen potential candidates and provide the board with a short list of about a dozen candidates. The board, through a rating system developed by the search firm, will identify two or three top candidates and interview them. At that point, Newman said, the final steps and decision is up to the board.
Ray and Associates has a two year guarantee for every search they conduct.