A stream of top-level departures in Adams 14 has left teachers uncertain about the school district’s direction and has some blaming a culture lacking respect and cooperation.
Just four of the 11 directors who started the 2017-18 year remain with the district today. Superintendent Javier Abrego, who was hired in 2016, has restructured his team and made new hires — changes a new communications team describes as a long-sought strategic shake-up to better align salaries and skills to people’s jobs.
Regardless of the reasons, the turnover has rattled district employees, including teachers who say there is constant uncertainty about where the district is headed.
“It’s about how you make the people around you feel,” said teacher Deborah Figueroa. “I have no faith in the administrative team the superintendent has pulled together right now. You want to be inspired.”
It particularly matters to Adams 14, which has struggled to raise the academic achievement of many students, as it approaches a possible state decision to mandate changes if state ratings due out this fall don’t improve.
“In practice, superintendents, they set the tone of the debate for what reform is going to look like,” said Ashley Jochim, a senior research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education. “In that way they can inspire people or they can really undermine that goodwill.”
Throughout the school year, as cabinet leaders left, some positions were eliminated, other staff members shifted positions or took on more roles, and other jobs were left vacant.
Barb McDowell, a district teacher and union president, said teachers often don’t know who to call if they need administrative help. Making matters worse, she said, at one point, the superintendent cut off communications with her over their disagreements.
“Some people think collaboration is agreeing all the time,” McDowell said. “I think it’s having different voices at the table. But nobody is working with us on anything. Our voices aren’t being heard or even asked for.”
Jochim said throughout her research, she believes one of the most important things for superintendents pushing reform is their ability to work with the community and with politicians to gain support for changes.
The superintendent turned down several requests for an interview for this story.
“I was hired to turn this district around, which requires that we make strategic changes and tough decisions, especially in the areas where our practices are not producing the results that we want and need,” Abrego said in written statement. “We can’t expect different results if we don’t make the appropriate changes to central office and in our schools.”
One example of a change was an administrator who was shifted from a human resources position, for which she had no prior experience, into an executive director position overseeing instruction, for which she does have some qualifications.
But researchers say that although turnover is inevitable when districts are in the middle of reform, the timing of the turnover in Adams 14 could suggest staff have lost confidence in a plan they first bought in to, or that necessary changes were delayed.
“And that would be quite worrying,” Jochim said.
Cynthia Trinidad-Sheahan, the district’s former director of secondary schools and most recently director of educator effectiveness, said she felt a disregard for her opinions which she said were based on her experience doing turnaround work.
“You’re supposed to be collaborating with other leaders,” said Trinidad-Sheahan, who resigned in May. “What it came down to is, they want those who are just going to do what they ask. They don’t want to be questioned.”
Adams 14 has always had problems with retaining staff. According to state data, turnover rates for its administrators are often higher than in districts with similar-sized administration teams, or in other metro-area districts. Last year’s turnover rate in Adams 14 was about 26 percent.
That instability, in turn, could be affecting principals. The turnover rate among principals in Adams 14, which was 52 percent last year according to state records, is much higher than in similar-sized districts or than other metro area districts.
Recent turnover has heightened anxiety for some students, parents, and teachers watching the clock runs down for the state to see improvement.
Just last year, Adams City High School students took to the streets to protest the inconsistency in their school leadership. The school has had six principals in as many years.
This year there were also organized protests by teachers who said there were too many teachers who were losing their jobs, while they felt that incompetent principals and administrators remained in place.
And the district’s school board hasn’t been immune from instability. Last month, the school board’s president suddenly resigned more than a year before his term ended.
Candidates who were looking to fill the board position expressed concern about a lack of leadership in the district.
“Leadership starts with this board and the superintendent, and at times we have appeared to be lacking in that area,” Joseph Dreiling told the board during his interview.
In the end, Sen. Dominick Moreno, a popular figure in the area, was selected for the role. Board members said they believed he could help them work together, and mend relationships with the community.
One important question for the board, and one on which the members have not had consensus, is on how they should manage the superintendent. He has not had a written evaluation during his tenure.
Some board members said that taking community complaints to the superintendent and asking him to fix them would be micromanaging. Other board members say they should be better informed about what the district is doing, and not be caught off guard every time a community member explains an issue new to them.
Top-level decision-making represented the only more specific question the board had when seeking to fill its vacancy — asking candidates to describe what the board’s role should be relative to the superintendent.
Moreno told the board that the superintendent should be held accountable.
“The superintendent is the only employee that the board actually has oversight over,” Moreno said. “This is the policymaking body and you evaluate your employee according to their ability to carry out the policies you set forward.”
Some community members have also talked to the board about turmoil and the superintendent’s leadership. So much so that the board has created new guidance for speakers at meetings, asking them not to use names of district staff, and asking them not to “attack” any specific people.
Among the administrative changes that will be evident this coming school year is the elimination of “chiefs” as part of any title. Sanchez, the district’s new manager of strategic communications, said part of the reason for reorganizing titles and roles was to bring more consistency to people’s salaries, and to have a more organized hierarchy of responsibilities.
For instance, the former chief financial officer, Sandy Rotella, had a contract directly with the board which started at $150,000 three years ago. As a comparison, the superintendent was hired in 2016 at a salary of $165,000.
Rotella retired in November, and her position was restructured and filled in the spring. Now, the executive director of budget, operations, and construction, who oversees Rotella’s and another eliminated position’s work, has a base salary of $128,546.
This year, six people will report directly to the superintendent, with some people who were previously directors now taking on new lower-level titles under the executive team. There are also some new lower-level positions.
In one example, the district’s director of English language development, Edilberto Cano, was placed on leave in December after a community uproar over changes to the biliteracy program. The district was rolling out a K-5 program to foster biliteracy in part by teaching students to read in their native language first, which can strengthen their English later. But the district decided to stop the changeover for now.
Then, as the superintendent cut off ties to the university that was helping with biliteracy instruction, Cano’s position was eliminated. The new position overseeing services for English learners is no longer a director, but rather a “culture and language development manager,” several steps removed from the superintendent.
Biliteracy program changes were the hardest on teachers, they say, because guidance changed throughout the year.
Figueroa, the middle school teacher, will also have a new principal this year. Principals are often key in how much administrative changes impact teachers, McDowell said.
So this summer, some said they are anxious, waiting to see how the latest changes will play out.
The superintendent, in his statement, said he expects changes to continue to “strengthen our climate and culture as an organization.”
“I’m completely not looking forward to the school year,” Figueroa said. “It’s a negative impact on the grown-ups, therefore, a negative impact on our kids.”
|Shelagh Burke, Director of Federal Programs and Interim Director of Education Technology
||Federal funding and IT
||Shelagh Burke, Executive Director of Federal Programs and Interventions, and Technology
|Sandy Rotella, Chief Financial Operations Officer
|Budget and finance
||Sean Milner, Executive Director of Budget, Operations and Construction
|Eddie Storz, Director of Finance, reporting to Sandy Rotella
||Budget and finance
||Eddie Storz, Director of Finance, reporting to Sean Milner
|Gionni Thompson, Chief Operating Officer
Relieved of duties
|Facilities and operations
||Duties absorbed by Sean Milner’s position
|Robert Frantum-Allen, Director of Student Support Services
|Special education, gifted and talented, mental health supports
||Shay Lynn Carter, Director of Student Support Services
|Janelle Asmus, Public Engagement Officer
||Alex Sanchez, Manager of Strategic Communications
|Jeanette Patterson, Director of Human Resources
||Staff recruitment and retention
||Darci Mohr, Executive Director of Human Resources and Legal
|No equivalent position
||Staff recruitment and retention
||Vacant, Director of HR, reporting to Darci Mohr
|Matt Schwartz, Director of Secondary Education
||Matt Schwartz, + one vacancy, Directors of Teaching and Learning (2 positions)
|Cynthia Trinidad-Sheahan, Director of Educator Effectiveness
|Teacher training and evaluation
||Mark Langston, Educator Effectiveness Manager
|Edilberto Cano, Director of English Language Development
No longer employed, details unclear
|English Language Learner services and biliteracy
||Tonia Lopez, Culture and Language Development Manager
|Ruben Chacon, Director of Teaching and Learning for Climate and Culture
||English Language Learner services and biliteracy
||Ruben Chacon, Student Intervention Officer
(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)