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Jeffco board to hear limited public comment before vote on superintendent finalist

The Jefferson County community will have 45 minutes to share their feelings on Dan McMinimee, the sole finalist for the open superintendent position, before the district’s Board of Education takes a final vote on the matter next Tuesday, Chalkbeat Colorado has learned.

The decision to include public comment comes after a gush of emails from parents and teachers asking for a chance to chime in on the hiring process flooded the email inboxes of board members and reporters earlier this week.

In an email to board member Lesley Dahlkemper, who first asked on Monday for a public comment session, and other community members, who sent similar requests, board chairman Ken Witt said it was a “great idea.”

An earlier version of next Tuesday’s agenda did not include public comment. According to an updated agenda, individuals will have one minute to share their thoughts on McMinimee and groups will have three minutes.

That’s different than most meetings that allow three minutes per individual and 10 minutes per group, Dahlkemper pointed out during an interview.

“I find it insulting to our community, which has not had a chance to weigh in on one of the most important decisions — if not the most important decision — that this board will make, to change the rules of the game,” Dahlkemper said.

But, Witt said, the board has limited public comment in the past.

“We have to do what’s right for conducting the business of the board while still accommodating for public comment,” he said.

The board’s vote on whether to hire McMinimee, who currently serves as assistant superintendent of secondary schools for the nearby Douglas County School District, comes after a three month search process. If hired, McMinimee will replace Cindy Stevenson, who left the district after 12 years as its chief in February.

Stevenson announced her retirement, which was expected to take place when her current contract expired June 30, in November. However, citing conflicts with the board’s newly elected conservative majority, Stevenson cut her tenure short by four months.

Witt has also guaranteed a draft of McMinimee’s contract, which is being generated by the district’s human resources department, will be provided to the board and public for inspection prior to Tuesday’s vote.

Update: The Denver Post has published a draft of the contract, which was released by the district this afternoon. The contract is for five years and calls for an annual review.

While the technical procedures of hiring a superintendent do vary from district to district, posting a potential superintendent’s contract before its signed by both the board and the candidate is not the norm.

Under Colorado law, negotiations may be protected by an executive session between the candidate, board and district attorney. Those negotiations may be kept confidential until a contract is signed by both parties. Only then must it become a public document.

Witt said he has not received any legal advice that forbid the district to release the contract.

Dahlkemper and other community members made the request to see the contract in the same series of emails. Their concern stems from the board’s majority — comprised of Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk — decision to hire Colorado Springs-based lawyer Brad Miller earlier this year. Critics and observers believe the process to hire Miller may have skirted the state’s open meeting laws.

Witt maintains he followed the law and it was necessary to hire Miller after the district’s attorney abruptly resigned.

The decision to hire McMinimee, let alone the process, is also under scrutiny given his tenure in Douglas County.

Community members had hoped the district’s new leader would be able to heal a yawning rift between the board’s majority and some portions of the Jefferson County Community.

But a number of concerned parents and teachers fear the Jeffco board majority’s conservative priorities coupled with McMinimee’s role in contentious policy changes in Dougco may significantly alter the status quo in Jefferson County.

The most vocal critics of the Jeffco board claim the majority is bent on ending a collective bargaining agreement with the district’s teachers union, implementing a compensation structure dependent on student tests scores, and expanding charter schools.

Rampant speculation, rumor, and fear have been born out of those concerns. Attendance at board meetings have skyrocketed. And last week, hundreds lined a 30-mile stretch of Wadsworth Boulevard, which runs north and south through the district, to make their concerns known.

The board president has promised to fulfill the union’s current agreement with raises, and his desires for a pay-for-performance compensation system and expanding school choice have been well known since last fall’s campaign.

McMinimee has stressed both publicly, and in a previously private interview with the search firm hired to recruit the next superintendent, his desire to unite the Jefferson County community.

According to an abbreviated transcript of an interview between McMinimee and a staff member of Iowa-based search firm Ray and Associates, Inc., McMinimee said he plans to spend “quality time with each board member to gain an understanding of their wants and needs.”

McMinimee’s candidate profile

The document, which was provided to Chalkbeat by a Jeffco parent who filed an open records request with the district, details McMinimee’s 100-day entry plan and specific strategies McMinimee has implemented to improve student achievement.

Among McMinimee’s other plans for his first 100 days are frequent school visits and community meetings, conversations with district staff to build trust and enroll them in critical decisions, and establish relationships with the Jeffco business community.

McMinimee said he hopes to “model a measure of common sense and humility,” in order to build trust with the board, according to the candidate profile.

One thing missing from the McMinimee’s profile, however, is specific data on his improvement efforts, said Tina Gurdikian, the parent who provided the document to Chalkbeat.

Gurdikian, in an email, said she wanted to know what data McMinimee provided the board in order for them to make their decision to name the Dougco administrator as their sole finalist. Previously, Witt has referenced his desire for numerous sets of data, including on the benefits of full day kindergarten for Jeffco students, Gurdikian said.

Neither Witt nor Dahlkemper, a member of the board’s minority that voted against naming McMinimee as the district’s sole finalist, would comment on what specific data was discussed in follow up interviews with McMinmiee, citing those discussions were held in executive session.

But, Witt said, McMinimee has a long and public track record of creating high performing schools and improving student outcomes.

“Dan was well vetted,” Witt said. “We’re very delighted with Dan as a strong leader.”

Dahlkemper wasn’t prepared to say whether she’ll vote to offer McMinimee a contract, which is expected to include a $280,000 salary, but said she’ll work with whomever the board majority selects to lead the district of nearly 85,000 students.

“I think time will tell whether Mr. McMinimee is able to unite this district, be able to stand on his own two feet on instructional leadership and be an independent thinker,” she said.

Update: This post has been updated to clarify Colorado’s legal previsions surrounding executive session and contract negotiations.