Jeffco Interrupted

McMinimee on teacher evaluations, the Jeffco budget, and his role as peacemaker

On Tuesday, we told you about how Dan McMinimee, Jeffco Public Schools’ new superintendent, introduced himself to district staff. Prior to the meeting, McMinimee sat down with Chalkbeat Colorado for a wide-ranging interview. Here are some highlights from our conversation:

First 100 days

McMinimee’s No. 1 goal during his first 100 days is high visibility. “I want people to feel I’m accessible,” he said. “My door is wide open. I want to meet with anyone.” Acknowledging his role as a chief peacemaking officer, he pledged to attend any meeting he’s invited to and will host anyone in his office who asks. He also said he wants to start putting together a coalition, or as he said, “setting a table,” of individuals from throughout the district and county to work on shared goals — especially around the Board of Education’s academic achievement goals, post secondary readiness and teacher effectiveness. “A lot of people want to be engaged in these conversations,” he said. “The challenge is how do we get people to move toward common goals.”

His predecessor

McMinimee confirmed he has been in communication with his predecessor, Cindy Stevenson, who left abruptly in February after she felt she could no longer work with a newly configured board. McMinimee called Stevenson a “respected educator” and characterized the conversations as productive. Stevenson offered her support to McMinimee through his transition, he said. “I appreciate it,” he said.

Lost time

McMinimee said he wants to move quickly to make up for any impact on the classroom the ongoing turmoil between between the board’s three-member conservative majority and certain portions of the community may have had. “The last six months some momentum may have been lost,” McMinimee said, quickly pointing out that “great” work has and continues to be done in Jeffco Public Schools.

Statewide education policy issues and Jeffco

As the superintendent of the state’s second largest school district (largest if you only count K-12 enrollment, as Jeffco officials point out), McMinimee will now have a very prominent role in helping shape statewide education policy. McMinimee said he plans on not only leveraging Jefferson County lawmakers but also his old Douglas County contacts.

He said the three biggest issues challenging school districts statewide are teacher evaluations, standardized testing and how the state funds its schools.

The challenge with teacher evaluations, McMinimee said, is how does a district evaluate a teacher fairly, consistently and within different contexts.

While teacher evaluations may be the most important conversation for those working within schools, state testing is the biggest conversation moving forward, McMinimee said. He said the state and its school districts need to strike a balance and noted that sometimes districts — and not the state — are the culprits behind excessive testing.

McMinimee also said he’s looking forward to working with other superintendents to find a better way to fund schools. He said the funding debate is bigger than just Jefferson County. “We have to look out for all of our students,” he said. “That’s the future of this state.”

Compensation

McMinimee’s salary, which makes him the highest paid CEO for any school district in Colorado, was hotly debated last month. McMinimee said time will tell if he’s worth it, but he hopes in five years peoplewill consider his total $280,000 compensation as a “bargain.”

Budget

Another contentious issue the Jeffco Board of Education took up last month was the district’s budget. In the end the board approved an $18.5 million placeholder for increases in compensation and directed an extra $5 million to charter schools. McMinimee said he was “very comfortable” with how the budget ended up. And he’s confident he can sit down with Jeffco staff to find the $5 million in cuts — if necessary — the district’s finance team is projecting in subsequent years.

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.