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Researchers: Jeffco leadership transition could hinder achievement goals

The Jeffco Public Schools’ search for a new superintendent may be in jeopardy even before the hunt for a new leader begins in earnest, education policy and leadership researchers told Chalkbeat Colorado.

And even the best thought-out transition plan between outgoing Superintendent Cindy Stevenson and whomever the board selects to take her place is likely to yield turnover at the district’s headquarters and schools, researchers said. A massive brain-drain could prevent the state’s second largest district from increasing its student achievement, as the board is seeking to do.

Increased media attention, rampant rumors and widespread distrust among the district’s community of parents, teachers, administrators and the board may make it difficult to attract a credible superintendent candidate, said Christine Campbell, policy director for the Center on Reinventing Public Education, or CRPE.

“Smart, hard working, outcome-driven people are not that interested in working in a system with a board that might be hard to understand or is akin to micromanaging,” she said.

The Jeffco board Tuesday night publicly interviewed two executive search firms it’s considering to aide in a nationwide search to replace Stevenson, who served as Jeffco’s chief for more than a decade.

The board is expected to ink a contract with either Ray and Associates or Proact Search next week.

Stevenson’s last day is Friday. She’s leaving the district sooner than expected after her relationship with the board’s new majority deteriorated. Stevenson had planned on retiring at the end of the school year. She made that announcement after the board’s new conservative majority was elected in November.

Board President Ken Witt said he expects to have a new superintendent selected — and hopefully in place — by the end of May. Several board members raised concerns with the firms about the timeline. But both companies agreed it was possible. 

Campbell contends if Jeffco’s board and the segments of community that feel disenfranchised aren’t able to publicly repair its relationship — and quickly — the district is likely to end up with a “manager” rather than an ambitious risk taker, which she believes Jeffco will need to fulfill the achievement goals the board has outlined.

Jeffco already outpaces the state’s averages in most academic achievement measures. But the district’s aggregate proficiency scores and growth rates have been flat for years.

“Right now,” she said, “[the board] is starting in a bad place.”

Even after a superintendent is hired, academic achievement might continue to stagnate — or drop — before improving, said Seattle Pacific University professor Tom Alsbury.

Alsbury has studied the relationship between board and superintendent turnover and academic achievement for more than a decade. His research, drawn from five decades of school board activity around the United States, suggests that when boards of education shift dramatically and when a superintendent transition takes place, it causes a ripple effect in personnel and policies that slow outcomes.

“Boards do matter,” Alsbury said.

Any new superintendent for Jeffco, Alsbury said, will likely be hired with a presumed mandate from the board.

“What we see, even now, before the new superintendent is hired, is concern at the central admin and  the principal level,” Alsbury said. “These people are evaluated by the superintendent. They have no tenure protections. What we see happening is a significant number of  highly effective people start to look for jobs else where, particularly where there are more stable districts.”

When principals leave, teachers follow, Alsbury said.

“We also see, when principals start to turn over, then we see teachers turn over,” he said. “They polish off the resume, and put it out there. And when they inevitably get job offers — especially the good ones — they say, ‘I’m going to take this chance.'”

Jeffco is the next …

Take a ride in an elevator at Jeffco’s headquarters during a board meeting and you’re likely to hear: “Jeffco is the new Dougco.”

In 2009, Dougco, short for Douglas County School District, saw its own conservative sweep of seats on its school board. That board ended its relationship with the teachers union, established a merit-pay system for educators and approved the state’s first voucher program, which is currently being debated in court.

Jeffco board observers charge that “the new majority is following the Dougco playbook.”

Controversy around Douglas County’s board has also sparked concerns that teachers and school leaders will abandon the district en masse. But district officials there argue that the teacher turnover rate is decreasing and is not large enough to warrant real concern.

In some ways, the apparent ideological divide on Jeffco’s board might bear even greater resemblance to the immediate past board of Denver Public Schools.

Prior to the November election, the DPS board was staunchly divided, 4-3, on issues such as support for charter schools, pay-for-performance, data driven accountability and closing low-performing schools. DPS observers regularly chastised the board for what they characterized as petty squabbles that yielded no improved academic outcomes for students. Several went so far as to assert Denver’s potential growth had been stalled out of fear of political retribution.

In a report, released earlier this month, by the Donnell-Kay Foundation found only one in every six students in DPS attended a quality school in 2013. One reason why, the report’s author said, was because of its governing board.

“DPS has to have been, over the last five years, overly political because of the divisiveness on the school board,” Alex Ooms said. “You often make choices, in a climate of difficult politics, you would not make otherwise.”

Boards across the nation face similar struggles, said David Bloomfield, a professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

“Organizations founder when there is instability,” Bloomfield said. “Like any corporation, where there is infighting and distraction among leadership, the organization loses direction.”

Jeffco board members and union leaders insist their teachers and administrators are professionals and classrooms won’t suffer. Everyone from the top down is focused on one thing: student performance.

But, amid conversations about issues that do impact student achievement such as the budget, teacher contract negotiations and a search for a new leader, a member of the board’s majority, Julie Williams has asked for a review of the district’s communication policies.

Williams’ request comes after a public exchange on the social media website Twitter between two members of the Jeffco PTA Michele Patterson and Shawna Fritzler. Their tweets reference Williams, Witt, the Jeffco PTA, and guns. The conversation does not include a specific threat against any member of the board, but it was enough to rattle Williams.

“We already have enough to worry about with the cyber bullying going on among our students,” Williams said in a statement. “This type of behavior is immature and is not the type of example we want to be for our children. This should be handled in the proper administrative manner as soon as possible.”

While both Patterson and Fritzler are members of the PTA, the conversation was exchanged from their personal accounts — not authorized Jeffco accounts.

“Very often small issues become causes for irreparable fracture,” Bloomfield said.

Big picture: Empower the district

The school boards that are most effective at boosting student achievement, according to research done by CRPE, are governing bodies that  focus on just a few things. They hire an executive to build a team to handle the rest.

The more hands-on a board is, the lesser the results, CRPE’s Campbell said.

“A board should really be very focused on a few responsibilities that might make them more effective,” she said. “Hiring-firing the superintendent, be accountable for school performance, focus on strategies and outcomes, reduce distractions. At the end of the day, looking across all types of governance models, what mattered most was the scope of the work.”

There are specific policies and practices the board can direct Jeffco to adopt or improve to smooth things over and keep its best teachers and administrators, CRPE’s Campbell said.

  • Promote autonomy: Make sure district professionals, especially school leaders, have control of their own staff, budget and curriculum. Establish a culture of valued professionals and their expertise.
  • Expand professional development: Give teachers the time and opportunity to leave the classroom to learn. Arrange teachers to visit other classrooms across the district and partner with teachers to share their work.
  • Create and maintain career ladders for central administrators.

In interviews and public statements, Witt has hinted he’s interested in exploring some of these exact policies, especially innovation schools.

However, in the three months since he’s been sworn in, Witt also has been repeatedly accused of micromanaging the district and overstepping his authority

Stevenson said she’s leaving in part because she felt she was unable to manage the district. And Tuesday, Witt wanted to personally release a letter to district staff reassuring stability and next steps. While his intentions may have been noble, members of the board’s minority cautioned him: direct communication with Jeffco staff isn’t the role of a board president.

Witt tabled the letter to review board policies.

Another piece of advice for the any new board, said Brooklyn College’s Bloomfield: go slow.

“I think the best change is always incremental,” he said.

Recalls tend to be fruitless

Experts Chalkbeat Colorado spoke with also had a few suggestions for members of the community who might find themselves opposed to the board’s new majority.

First: don’t attempt a recall. They rarely work, Alsbury said. Usually successful recalls only follow egregious abuses of power, like embezzlement. Stay active and wait for the next election cycle.

Second: be vigilant, but not forceful. Any large organized demonstration — especially by the teachers union — could backfire, Campbell suggested.

“It can be very distressing to live in a place where [a lot of change] is happening, whether you’re a teacher, a parent or just someone reading the paper,” she said. “Fight for what you really value” but appearing to resist change may not help the cause.

Third: don’t turn a rowboat into the Titanic, Bloomfield said.

He pointed to the co-location debate in New York Public Schools. The policy impacts only about 4 percent of the entire student body, Bloomfield said. But those who oppose the policy make it out to be a bigger inconvenience.

“That’s the kind of sensation that can ruin [a district],” he said.