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The sense and sensibility of Jeffco superintendent finalist Dan McMinimee

Dan McMinimee, left, meets with members of the Jefferson County community May 15. McMinimee, a Dougco administrator, is the sole finalist to become superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools.
Dan McMinimee, left, meets with members of the Jefferson County community May 15. McMinimee, a Dougco administrator, is the sole finalist to become superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools.
Nicholas Garcia

Around the same time Jefferson County teachers and parents were sharing — in great detail — the qualities and qualifications they wanted in their next superintendent (a traditional school leader with classroom experience — MBAs need not apply), Dan McMinimee approached his boss, Douglas County Public Schools Superintendent Liz Fagen, about applying for the job.

“It wasn’t surprising to me,” said Fagen of her deputy’s decision to apply. “He’s a quality leader.”

It has been four years since Fagen appointed McMinimee to assistant superintendent of secondary schools. Previously, he was a school director in the Douglas County school system. Before that, he opened Rock Canyon High School as the school’s principal. And before that, he was a teacher and coach in Washington state.

He is, by all accounts, the type of traditional candidate many parents and teachers of Jeffco Public Schools want.

Except that, because McMinimee — who was named the district’s sole finalist for the position of superintendent Saturday — ascended to one of Dougco’s top spots during a span of controversial reform efforts driven by a conservative school board, he’s being greeted with skepticism from many of those same educators and parents.

One Twitter user summarized the mood:

Like sure it definitely makes sense to hire someone from DOUGLAS COUNTY to be the superintendent. #what #no #jeffcoschoolbd #sucks

— Graeme Schulz (@ggschulz) May 11, 2014

Even supporters of the board’s majority, made up of conservative members Ken Witt, Julie Williams, and John Newkirk, are concerned about the Douglas County affiliation.

“It’s unfortunate he works in Douglas County,” said Sheila Atwell, president of the education advocacy organization Jeffco Students First, which generally supports the current board. “It will make it harder [to win over the public].”

Factions of Jeffco parents and teachers fear that the conservative board majority elected in November will seek to enact reforms similar to those seen in Dougco. Jeffco schools have by comparison seen little of the sweeping reforms found in Denver and Douglas County schools, and a vocal part of the Jeffco community believes that such reforms would be unnecessary and overwrought.

Further, tensions between the Jefferson County Education Assocation and the board’s bargaining team have some teachers worried they’ll be left without a collective bargaining agreement when the contract expires in 2015.

McMinimee, who was named Jeffco’s sole finalist on a 3-2 vote, will begin a series of meetings with the Jefferson County community tonight. He’s vowed to prove himself the right man for the job.

Before you head to Wheat Ridge High School tonight to meet the finalist, Chalkbeat has rounded up a few opinions about him (both positive and negative), scanned news archives that mention McMinimee and examined student achievement data under his tenure in Dougco. Below is what we’ve heard and found.

Reference check

Douglas County Board of Education President Kevin Larsen told Chalkbeat this week that he first heard of McMinimee when McMinimee returned to Colorado to open Rock Canyon High School, which quickly became one of Dougco’s best schools, Larsen said during a recent interview.

Later, when Larsen chaired the district’s accountability committee, he worked closely with McMinimee, who was the liaison between the committee and the district’s leadership team.

And McMinimee has been reporting to the board since Larsen joined in 2011.

“Dan knows how to access and use data to make decisions. He’s very well researched. He’s straightforward with people but likes to hear everyone’s opinion. If he has a different opinion, he’ll show you how he reached his decision. He has a lot of respect for principals and many teachers. Dan has been through some things that have been challenging to the community. He’s going to bring a great deal of experience in things that we’ve done in Douglas County to make education better for Jeffco kids. He’s going into Jeffco knowing full well he has to understand the board’s position and understand the teachers and leaderships and parents of Jeffco.”

Cherie Garcia-Lewis also met McMinimee by attending district accountability committee meetings when she served as the president of her school’s committee. Since then, she has founded SPEAK DCSD, an advocacy organization that generally opposes the reforms led by the board and district’s leadership team, including McMinimee.

“At first, [McMinimee] seemed like an OK guy. [But his push to move to the block schedule and his role in the contract negotiations] made me wonder. That’s my thing with Dan. I go back and forth on him. I know stuff happens and you have to do certain things to keep your job. I’m still trying to understand what he actually wants vs. what he’s doing to keep his job. But at the end of the day, you’re guilty by not speaking out. I wonder if he’s drank the Kool-Aid. I think he has.”

Douglas County teachers union president Courtney Smith has no doubt that McMinimee has negatively impacted the district’s suburban classrooms. Smith, who faced off against McMinimee when they both participated in teachers contract negotiations in 2012, said that, if nothing else, McMinimee is guilty for not standing up for teachers during those contract talks.

“I can’t separate the man from the actions. Character is your actions. I worked across the tables from him. I found his comments to be very disingenuous. Putting [the failed contract negotiations] off on the board is unforgivable in my opinion. What has happened here is a travesty for public education and a travesty for Dougco. This is not just because they failed to negotiate with the union. That’s not the case. They have completely stopped collaborating with professional educators. He’s created low morale in the schools.”

But McMinimee’s boss and mentor, Dougco Superintendent Liz Fagen, disagrees. She said that McMinimee has spent hundreds of hours listening to teachers, schools leaders, and parents as he led two overhauls of the district’s strategic plan to boost student achievement. He’s also led an effort to expand the district’s leadership pool by developing a class for teachers who want to become a school or district leader.

“Dan is just a good man. I’ve heard that so many times during the last four years. It’s very important to him to connect his work to students. He is everything you want in a leader. He models what he hopes to see in others. He has a strong moral compass. Dan has collaborated on building the district’s strategic plan we hope to role out July 1. I’m guessing we’ve hosted about 20 feedback sessions. And he’s done a lot of them. He’s met with people and asked them about their ideas for the future. He understands transformation and moving things ahead. He’s very unique in this profession and can offer that.”

On the record

Chalkbeat also combed news archives to see what McMinimee has said in the past on issues that might be of interest to Jefferson County watchers. In Douglas County, he played a significant role in two controversial decisions — to abandon contract talks with the teachers union in 2012 and the district’s decision to implement a new block schedule in its high schools that same year.

McMinimee is probably best known outside of Douglas County as the district’s lead negotiator during the 2012 contract talks that left teachers without a collective bargaining agreement. McMinimee told Chalkbeat that he felt he found a lot of compromise with the union and that it was ultimately the board of education’s decision to call off the talks. But Courtney Smith, president of the local union, says that’s not the complete story. She said McMinimee could have taken a stronger stand for teachers when reporting to the board.

Slow going for Dougco contract talks,” May 25, 2012: At a public meeting between the district and the union, McMinimee served primarily as messenger for the board, which ultimately had to approve or reject a finalized contract. Among the board’s priorities were stopping the collection of union dues through the district’s payroll system and no longer counting union leadership among district employees.

“We don’t want to be the middle man in the collecting of dues that end up being used to influence local elections.” — Dan McMinimee

Negotiations back on in Dougco,” June 26, 2012: With only one week to go to finalize a contract between the union and the district, both sides charged the other with being uncooperative. Though no official meetings were scheduled, McMinimee told the union he was available. But it appeared at the time any meeting would be fruitless because of how far apart the union and the board were on several issues, including pay, the collection of dues, and providing teachers with more association options.

“To be clear, we are asking for choice for our teachers … you are asking for a monopoly.” — Dan McMinimee in a letter to Brenda Smith, the union’s president, on June 12.

Dougco contract talks fall short,” June 29, 2012: As the clock ran out on negotiations, union leaders became increasingly frustrated when McMinimee reiterated he was unable to agree to any compromise before clearing it with the Dougco board of education. Discussion on key issues — including whether the Federation could be the only union in the county, compensation, dues deduction, and union leaders as district employees — never evolved.

“I am not in the position to say yes, we accept that and we move forward.” — Dan McMinimee.

Board negotiations wasn’t the only issue in 2012 McMinimee played a large role in. More recently, McMinimee has defended an initiative to lower class sizes while cutting the budget. To do so, however, the district asked teachers to take on an additional class and have high schools move to a block schedule. The new bell schedule had students taking fewer classes per day but for longer durations.

Douglas County asks teachers to teach more,” Feb. 21, 2012: McMinimee said that the change in schedule, coupled with the additional workload for teachers, would save the district $5.5 million. Students who were already taking a full course load at schools that already had a block schedule in place, however, were asked to take one fewer class. McMinimee said the change, while burdensome, would allow students to continue to enroll in electives at the middle and high school level.

“We’re the lowest funded school district in the Denver metro area. Making this schedule change at the high school allows us to keep what we have at our elementary and middle schools.” — Dan McMinimee

High school block schedule working, district officials say,” May 24, 2013: One year into the new schedule, McMinimee reported the new schedule met everyone’s expectations. But the data McMinimee presented only looked at freshman who were not allowed to leave campus. Some parents were angered by early releases and 90-minute off periods for upper classmen. McMinimee did note there was a reduction of overall instruction time, but maintained his support of the schedule because of the effect on class size.

“We’re very proud of this. We know this has had a direct impact on students. They’re no longer having to sit on the floor. They’re no longer anonymous.” — Dan McMinimee

Four Highlands Ranch high schools return to traditional schedule,” May 8, 2014: As more funds return to schools, four Dougco high schools announced this spring they plan to return to a traditional seven-period day. Also, teachers will no longer be required to teach an additional class. The move does come with some conditions: class sizes must stay at or below 30 students per class; schools may not cut any classes or programs; and students are able to take as many classes as they want.

“Principals are in a position to gauge their staff and what students’ needs are and parent needs are.” — Dan McMinimee.

Data dive

One way to measure improved student outcomes is by looking at how many students are considered proficient or advanced by their performance on the state’s standardized tests. We looked at middle and high school results for Dougco and Jeffco students since 2009. We found while both districts posted on average higher gains in 2013 than 2009:

  • Dougco on average moved up 4 percentage points compared to Jeffco, by contrast, moved up 1 point.
  • Dougco gained points in all subjects (reading, writing, and math) at both the middle and high school level, whereas Jeffco lost one point in both reading and writing at the high school level.
  • Dougco closed its achievement gap, or the difference in achievement between students who qualify for free- or reduced-lunch (a proxy of poverty) compared to those who do not, by nearly 7 points. During the same time period, Jeffco closed its achievement gap by just 5.

During McMinimee’s tenure at Dougco, the district closed its high school achievement gap by more percentage points in math and writing than Jeffco. However, Jeffco outpaced Dougco in closing its achievement gap in high school reading.

At the middle school level, between 2009 and 2013, Jeffco closed its achievement gap by more points in math and reading, while Dougco closed its middle school gap by more points in writing.

Looking forward

Jill Fellman, a member of the Jeffco board’s minority, told Chalkbeat her vote against naming McMinimee as the sole finalist was not a ding against him, but rather against the process. She objected to having just a single finalist.

“I wanted more,” Fellman said.

She had hoped naming more candidates as finalists and having them meet the Jefferson County community would have given her a chance to size-up the finalists in person.

“I wanted to see them in action,” she said.

Still, Fellman and her colleague Lesley Dahlkemper, who also voted against naming McMinimee as the sole finalist, have pledged to keep an open mind.

“I’ve committed to my colleagues, and now to you, to keep an open mind to see how the next few weeks go,” she said during a phone interview Tuesday.

The earliest the Jeffco school board may take a vote of make an official offer to McMinimee is May 24, 14 days after the board named him as a finalist. No meeting has been scheduled at this time. If offered the job, McMinimee will replace Cindy Stevenson who led Jeffco for 12 years. She left the district abruptly in February citing conflicts with the board.

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