Big decision

One year after recall election, Jefferson County school board weighing superintendent’s fate

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Dan McMinimee met with the Jeffco community in 2014 before being hired as Superintendent.

The Jefferson County school board has begun discussions to decide the fate of Superintendent Dan McMinimee, one year after voters ousted the conservative board members who hired him.

McMinimee was a controversial pick when he was hired in summer 2014. He had no experience as superintendent, and had previously been an assistant superintendent at the Douglas County School District — a district that had ended negotiations with its teachers union.

The recall campaign at times focused on McMinimee and his salary package. But when the recall was successful, new board members said they would give the superintendent a chance.

McMinimee’s $220,000 contract expires June 30 and board members must decide if they will renegotiate a contract with him or launch a search for a new superintendent.

If the board decides to retain McMinimee, they must notify him in writing by March 31 under the terms of his contract.

Jeffco school board members held an executive session last week during a conference in Colorado Springs in which they started discussions on the superintendent’s contract, a district spokeswoman said. The board is scheduled to go into executive session again Thursday to continue the discussion.

“You don’t wait until the contract expires,” Ron Mitchell, the Jeffco school board president, told Chalkbeat. “Should the board be thinking we want to go in another direction, that requires a fair amount of prior planning. That’s the rationale for the timing — the only reason we’re beginning those discussions.”

If the board wanted to part ways with McMinimee before his contract expires without attempting to fire him with cause, the district would need to pay him the amount of one year’s base salary, according to his contract. If the superintendent wants to terminate the contract, he would have to give the board six months notice or be charged for damages.

McMinimee said Wednesday that he would like to stay in the district and hopes the board can make a decision soon. He said he expects a chance at Thursday’s meeting to address any board concerns.

“We have a significant amount of work we have to get started in January,” McMinimee said. “This needs to get resolved so we can focus on that.”

After the start of the new year, district staff will be working on drafting next year’s budget and finding ways to cut back on projects that would have been funded if the district’s bond and mill levy requests had prevailed at the ballot box last month.

In the last few months, board members and McMinimee have discussed his performance during open meetings as part of his evaluation process.

In September, the board finalized one evaluation used to determine if McMinimee was eligible for up to $40,000 in bonuses tied to district goals. The evaluation, required by his contract, determined that he helped the district reach more than half of the goals, including raising scores on state tests and on the ACT test, and creating school accountability teams at every district school.

McMinimee received the lowest scores of partially effective on three out of the 12 goals including one related to creating a new charter school application process, and for mixed results increasing the number of third-graders meeting or exceeding expectations in reading.

Based on the review, McMinimee received $20,000 in performance pay.

After that evaluation, the board started the work of setting the superintendent goals for next year. McMinimee presented a draft of his suggested goals at a meeting two weeks ago.

During that discussion, board members pushed back on the draft, suggesting that some of the goals McMinimee had set should be expectations of his job, not additional goals for bonuses. They asked for more goals that can be tied to reliable data.

Under McMinimee’s tenure, the second largest school district in Colorado has made changes to a group of schools on the district’s more impoverished eastern boundary, including expanding Alameda and Jefferson high schools into seventh through 12th grade campuses.

The district has also moved toward giving principals more autonomy. That included a switch to a student-based budget system that provides schools a set amount of money per student and more flexibility in spending. The recent defeat of the district’s bond and mill levy requests mean some plans for new schools and for renovations will be put on hold.

“I’m thankful the board gave me an opportunity to continue and work on some of the initiatives we were already doing — things like the Jeffco 2020 Vision,” McMinimee said, referring to the district’s goals and strategic plan, which predates last year’s election.

“I’m very proud of the work that my staff has done,” he said. “I don’t know of many people that would have held in there with some of the things that have happened. And I’m referring to my cabinet. I’m very proud we have not wavered.”


How KIPP’s observers and allies are reacting to co-founder Mike Feinberg’s firing

PHOTO: Creative Commons / William J Sisti

A day after one of the education reform movement’s most prominent figures was fired, his colleagues are grappling with their shock over the allegations that led to his termination and with what the news might mean for the schools he founded and the movement as a whole.

The KIPP charter network fired Mike Feinberg, its co-founder, Thursday after revealing that a law firm hired by the network to investigate found credible allegations of sexual abuse of a child in the 1990s and sexual harassment of two adult KIPP employees. Feinberg denies the allegations, which were not definitively substantiated.

What are people who have followed Feinberg, KIPP, and the charter movement thinking today? We asked a number of them. Here’s some of what they said.

First, from Richard Barth, KIPP’s CEO: “This morning 100,000 KIPPsters went to school across the country – nearly 90,000 in our schools and over 10,000 on college campuses. This organization is bigger than one person and while this is a difficult day in our history our KIPPsters and families are depending on us. We are thoroughly reviewing all of our organizational policies and practices to ensure that they protect every member of the KIPP community.”

Robin Lake of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, which is generally supportive of charters: “I really don’t think of this as a charter schools issue. The #metoo movement is an equal opportunity movement that is showing up everywhere. For me, this is just another reminder that these kinds of issues can pop up anywhere, anytime, with neighbors and with icons. We just have to have good systems in place so they are dealt with fairly and effectively.”

Mike Petrilli of the pro-charter Fordham Institute: “This is a sad day for all of us in education reform. Either one of the heroes of our movement is a monster, or he has been the victim of a terrible injustice. KIPP is no doubt in for some tough sledding, but assuming they handled the allegations appropriately, they will get through it. And they should get through it, because they continue to do amazing work for kids on a daily basis.”

Jeff Henig, a professor and longtime observer of education policy at Columbia University: “For various reasons, at least a little steam seems to have been escaping from the charter movement, so this could be a delicate time to take on any extra baggage. Charter networks like KIPP depend on public bodies — authorizers, school boards, district administrators — for a range of things including funding, access to buildings, contracts, and their charters themselves. Even when public officials can intellectually distinguish between an organization and one bad actor, they remain highly sensitive to public opinion. With the #MeToo movement roiling the waters of voter sentiment, at least some officials may find it easier to look elsewhere.”

Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools: “The National Alliance believes creating safe spaces for all is a core premise of public education, and one that we work towards every day. These jarring allegations — especially against someone with ties to the public school ecosystem — are antithetical to everything our community stands for. We support the actions taken by KIPP leadership to proactively and thoroughly investigate and subsequently terminate Mr. Feinberg.”

Dacia Toll, co-founder and president of Achievement First charter schools: “While this news is incredibly upsetting, KIPP is bigger than any one individual. Over many years in many communities, KIPP has established a strong legacy of excellence and a commitment to doing what’s right. Their values are on display even in how they are handling this difficult situation.”

Some people defended Feinberg, which in turn led to a sharp backlash.

Jeanne Allen, head of the Center for Education Reform: “Mike Feinberg’s long time, unassailable record of integrity, honesty and commitment to putting kids first and his outright denial of the allegations, lead me to question the findings of KIPP’s lawyers and management and thus their decision to move Mike out without ever giving him a chance to respond to the allegations. This is not coming from an uncritical fan — I have had differences with Mike on policy for years, but I still respect his work and accomplishments and have seen him enough in action to know these are likely scurrilous charges. If he or anyone else is guilty of sexual misconduct they should be dismissed immediately. But I have doubts that this is the case.”

Allen’s support for Feinberg in a tweet Thursday prompted a number of critical responses.

“I’m heartbroken & angry that you think an independent investigation that confirmed ‘credible evidence that is incompatible with the mission and values of KIPP’ isn’t enough to NOT give someone the benefit of the doubt,” responded Kate Duval, the head of external relations for the group 50CAN.

“Neither good work nor service entitles a man to the benefit of the doubt when accused of sexual assault or harassment. No matter who they are,” wrote Matt Richmond of EdBuild.

A few others on Twitter — John Arnold of the Arnold Foundation and Nelson Smith, a senior advisor at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers — have emphasized Feinberg’s past work rather than the allegations against him, or the fact that they were deemed credible by KIPP.

Rishawn Biddle, who runs the site Dropout Nation, seemed to allude to this in his own statement: “The big question is how will leaders in the school reform movement address what has happened? So far, a few leading figures have chosen to not make strong, unwavering calls for all leaders in the movement, and in American public education as a whole, to engage in good conduct, especially when it comes to working with children, at all times. At the same time, I’m not necessarily surprised with the responses so far. One reason is because the movement itself has long struggled with holding its own leading lights to account.”

heated discussion

Aurora budget talks devolve into charter school spat

Aurora Public Schools board of directors and Superintendent Rico Munn, center.

Aurora isn’t facing major budget cuts, and school board members don’t have any significant disagreements with their superintendent’s budget priorities, but that didn’t stop a school board meeting this week from turning into a heated back and forth. At issue: the impact of charter schools, how new board members got elected, and what that says about what the community wants.

Four of the seven school board members were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate, sometimes speaking against charter schools. Many have been wondering what changes the new board will bring for the fifth largest district in the state, and Tuesday’s discussion shined a light on some rising tensions about different priorities.

The budget discussion was the last agenda item for the school board. District staff and Superintendent Rico Munn intended for the school board to provide guidance on whether their proposed budget priorities were the right ones.

Union-backed members who were sworn in in November pressed the superintendent and staff to talk about how charter schools would impact the district’s long-term finances.

“What I’ve always said is that charter schools have a negative impact on our financial model,” Munn said.

Veteran board member Dan Jorgensen asked Munn to clarify his statement.

“I don’t say necessarily it’s negative to the district, I say it’s negative to our financial model,” Munn said. “I just think that’s a fact.”

Then the conversation turned to the community. Board member Monica Colbert, one of the longer-serving board members, said the district is changing whether or not the board agrees because the community is demanding something different. The community “came out in droves” asking for the DSST charter school, she said.

Board President Marques Ivey, who was elected in November, disagreed.

“Not (to) this group that was voted in, I guess,” Ivey said. “I have to look at it in that way as well.”

Jorgensen supported Colbert’s argument.

“I think often times our perspective is also skewed by who we engage with, of course,” Jorgensen said. “But we need to be mindful we are here to represent our whole community.”

He added that a small fraction of Aurora’s registered voters voted in the school board election, saying, “there’s no mandate here at this table.”

When Ivey tried to dispute the numbers, Jorgensen continued.

“It’s not a debate,” he said. “That’s not the point. No one sits here based on — I mean there’s a lot of factors that contributed, like half a million dollars behind us or this or that.”

November’s election included large spending from the union and from pro-reform groups. The union slate of board members raised less money on their individual campaigns, but had the most outside help from union spending, totaling more than $225,000.

“I’m not going to let you get away with that shot,” Ivey said, stopping Jorgensen.

Then another board member stepped in to change the subject and ask for a word change on Munn’s list of budget priorities.

The district isn’t expecting to make significant budget cuts this coming school year, but in order to pay for some new directives the school board would like to see, district staff must find places to shrink the budget to make room.

The proposed priorities include being able to attract and retain staff, addressing inequalities, and funding work around social, emotional and behavioral needs. More specifically, one of the changes the district is studying is whether they can afford to create a centralized language office to make it easier for families and staff to access translation and interpretation help. It was a change several parents and community members showed up to the meeting to ask for.

Board members did not have major objections to the superintendent’s proposed priorities.

During the self-evaluation period at the end of the meeting, board member Kevin Cox said things aren’t as bad as they look.

“We’re building cohesion despite what may seem like heated discussions,” Cox said.

Things could be worse, he added – he’s heard of other groups getting in fist fights.

Correction: A quote in this story was changed to remove an expletive after Chalkbeat reviewed a higher quality audio recording of the meeting.