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Does a district need a superintendent?

A school district east of Colorado Springs is poised to test the reaches of the state’s Innovation Schools Act, which allows waivers from state laws and collective bargaining agreements.

School board members in the Falcon 49 School District are buying out the contracts of their top four district administrators – including the superintendent, a job that would be eliminated – as they scrap a traditional governance structure for something completely different.

The plan, known as the Innovation Initiative, calls for the creation of three innovation zones, each centered around one of the district’s three high schools. Each zone consists of the high school and all elementary and middle schools feeding into it.

Falcon 49 facts
  • The district of 14,708 students is the 18th largest in Colorado.
  • Falcon has more than doubled in size since 2000, when it enrolled 6,026.
  • 19% of Falcon students qualify for federal lunch aid, an indicator of poverty; the state average is 40%.
  • 75% of Falcon students were reading at grade level on 2010 state exams; 53% scored proficient or advanced in math.

Heading each zone is the high school principal, now renamed “innovation leader/assistant superintendent” and given additional responsibilities, including leading all schools within the zone.

But the new assistant superintendents won’t be reporting to a superintendent. Instead, they’ll report to a chief executive officer, whose job will be focused strictly on academic issues across the zones.

Other responsibilities typically overseen by a superintendent – human resources, facilities, transportation – would be handled by the assistant superintendents or shift to a new head of service center operations. A third position would be in charge of special projects.

The result, according to Falcon’s innovation organization chart, is a school board overseeing three lesser positions of equal weight – CEO, service operations and special projects – rather than a single superintendent responsible for all areas.

“We have a traditional top-down structure,” said district and board spokeswoman Stephanie Meredith. “Where we want to go is to take an administrative top-heavy district and push down resources and decision-making to the school level.”

Innovation initiative timeline, upfront costs

Falcon’s timeline sets out a year of activity leading to formally requesting State Board of Education approval of the innovation zones in November. If approved, the district’s first year of operations as three zones would begin in August 2012.

But the Falcon school board already is casting key votes, including deciding Jan. 27 to buy out the contracts of the district’s chief financial officer, chief information officer and director of human resources for a combined total of $760,000.

Last week, Superintendent Brad Schoeppey announced he will leave the district on June 30, citing the reduction in responsibilities that will come with shifting the superintendent’s position to CEO. The district will pay $225,000 to buy out his five-year contract, which began in 2009.

“This initiative will connect the community, parents and children to their schools,” Schoeppey said in a news release, “but the elevation of innovation leaders in the schools resulted in a diminished role for the superintendent and other executive positions.”

In the release, district leaders acknowledge “initial upfront” costs of $1.1 million, including the contract buyouts. Other costs include $8,000 raises for the principals turned innovation leaders as they work longer, year-round contracts.

But Falcon School Board President Dave Martin said the initiative will actually save $11.85 million over the next five years. That’s based on $2.96 million for not filling the four administrative positions plus another $10 million, or $2 million per year, for eliminating busing for all students except those with special needs.

Martin said the origin of the zone initiative “goes back a way to a spider’s nest of interconnected items,” not the least of which is budgetary problems. For example, he said the district is paying too much for busing.

“We are using $3.5 million out of our general fund for transportation,” he said. “We can’t sustain that.”

Mixed reactions as initiative rolls out

Falcon school board members voted to eliminate busing for students next school year at a Jan. 13 meeting that was so packed it was shut down by the fire department.

Such strife is nothing new in a district that is on its sixth superintendent since 2003 and whose board president, Martin, came within 135 signatures of being recalled in 2009.

The vote to eliminate busing also triggered the release of a request for proposals from outside operators willing to take over the district’s busing service. Cindy Hardin, the district’s transportation director, said she will submit a proposal that includes options such as charging students per bus ride.

“This is just one of several departments within the district that will be considered for elimination, downsizing or outsourcing,” reads the board’s approved agenda item.

Talking about innovation
  • Ben DeGrow with the Independence Institute interviewed board vice president Chris Wright about the initiative. You can listen to the podcast here.

Some pieces of the innovation initiative, including eliminating busing or buying out contracts, have drawn anger. In a Jan. 27 letter to the community, the Falcon board acknowledged it was moving toward “disruptive” change but described it as “inevitable.”

“If not now, when should the district start to curtail six-figure salary positions?” the letter asks.

The Colorado Springs Gazette, in an editorial published Feb. 3, urged a wait-and-see attitude, noting school district budget cuts usually take a disproportionate toll on students and teachers and Falcon’s plan is “turning that paradigm on its head.”

“If chaos prevails, it will be business as usual for D-49,” the newspaper wrote, referring to its history of conflict between boards and superintendents.

“If the innovation plan results in more emphasis on students, teachers and principals — without causing organizational mayhem — it will become a model for other districts to replicate.”

Impact on schools, classrooms, teachers still vague

Exactly how the initiative will impact schools and classrooms is still being sorted out.

Six community meetings are scheduled this month at the high schools – Falcon, Sand Creek and Vista Ridge – that will head the new innovation zones. By Feb. 24, the timeline calls for the zones to be defined by “geography, population, theme.”

Members of the Falcon Middle School band practiced last week; how the school would be affected by the district's Innovation Initiative is still uncertain.

Members of the Falcon Middle School band practiced last week; how the school would be affected by the district’s Innovation Initiative is still uncertain.

“It’s really important when we put this together that we hit the reset button and bring everyone to the table,” said Vista Ridge Principal Bob Felice, “the community, teachers, administrators and parents.”

Felice and the other innovation leaders are charged with putting together the applications that will go to the state board for approval. Sand Creek Principal Sean Dorsey put together a successful innovation application for Wasson High School in Colorado Springs but these would be the state’s first zone, rather than single school, applications.

“The devil is in the details,” said Dorsey, who moved from Wasson to Sand Creek last fall. “There are no details yet.”

Innovation Schools Act
  • Learn more on the state’s website, including links to the law and info on other innovation schools.
  • Seven Denver schools and one Colorado Springs school have innovation status; Falcon would be the first “zone” to apply.
  • Denver school board members recently approved innovation school guidelines – see why one board member helped craft them.

The Innovation Schools Act is intended to free schools from bureaucratic rules and regulations, through waivers of state law and union contracts. Falcon teachers, however, do not have collective bargaining.

“In a school district without a contract, one of our concerns would be that the employees don’t have a voice,” said Jeanne Beyer, spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association, which is watching the initiative unfold.

The law requires a school seeking waivers of contract protections to win approval from 60 percent of its teachers, though it’s unclear how that applies to Falcon. The initiative timeline, however, does include a Sept. 1 deadline for “secur(ing) approval of majority of teachers.”

Beyer said the CEA has concerns about which waivers from state law – such as teacher licensing – the district might seek and whether school leaders would have full hiring and firing authority. About 40 percent of Falcon teachers are CEA members.

“We believe the principal should be the education leader, the curriculum leader, the leader of improving quality instruction,” she said, “and that final hiring decisions should basically stay at the central-office level.”

For the new innovation leaders, it’s clear a different model has its appeal. Felice, at Vista Ridge, believes the initiative will result in faster responses to changing student needs.

“We want to narrow the focus and concentrate on the important things in education,” he said. “Innovation zones will allow agile decision-making.”