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Pueblo City Schools superintendent finalists meet public

Eight people sit on a dais behind a panel, with about six people in orange chairs in the audience.
The Pueblo City Schools Board of Education met April 22. The board is looking for a new superintendent to begin July 1. Maggie Lopez, the district's current leader is retiring after a 37-year career, four of which were in Pueblo.
Nicholas Garcia

PUEBLO — Three finalists are vying to lead the struggling school district here and tonight the city’s school board is publicly interviewing them.

The three finalists, who want to lead the 23-school district will answer questions from a moderator from the Colorado School Boards Assocation, which has organized the search. While community members in attendance won’t be able to interact with the candidate’s directly, they were encouraged to submit questions in advance.

The three finalists are Brush School District Superintendent Michelle L. Johnstone, Pueblo Central High School principal Lynn Seifert, and Lee County, Florida, school district Executive Director for School Development Constance A. Jones.

One of the three will replace outgoing Superintendent Maggie Lopez, who is retiring at the end of June. Lopez has led the Pueblo school district for four years. She announced her retirement — after a 37-year career in education — earlier this year.

The new superintendent will begin July 1 — the same day Pueblo enters its fourth year on the state’s accountability watch list. It is the largest of 11 districts entering either year four or five on the state’s accountability clock.

Since 2010, the state has linked its accreditation of districts to an annual review of student performance on state standardized tests and post-secondary preparedness. Districts that receive either a “turnaround” or “priority improvement” rating on the district performance framework have five years to improve or lose accreditation.

Pueblo is accredited as a “priority improvement” district.

If Pueblo students do not show enough progress on this spring’s round of standardized tests, the new superintendent will have only a precious few months to accelerate student achievement to beat the state’s accountability clock.

Below are Chalkbeat reporter Nicholas Garcia’s live and unedited updates from the forum:

Analysis: Reporter’s takeaways from the superintendent forum

10:50 a.m., Wednesday: The Pueblo City Schools Board of Education is expected to hire a new superintendent May 13. By the end of an open forum with its three finalists Tuesday night, a clearer picture of what kind of leader the board wants (instructional-based, teacher friendly, cautious, collaborator) came into focus, based on broad similarities among the candidates and their answers.

Here are three takeaways from the forum:

1. Three shades of a superintendent — While each finalist has her own unique background and resume, they seemed to posses more similar qualities — or at least philosophies of how to improve student outcomes — than dissimilar. Based on their answers during the public forum, there was no clear outlier nor a candidate that truly distinguished herself as a clear front runner.

Whether it was discussing strategies to turnaround schools, balancing the budget, negotiating with teachers contracts, or the state’s new standards, the candidates largely agreed with one another. And they said so several times throughout the night. Only the most nuanced listener could — in the moment — identify specific strategies or themes that might separate one from other. The city’s school board will need to spend some time really reviewing the candidates’ answers carefully to choose its leader.

2. The people of Pueblo have serious questions and clear priorities— While it was hard to determine what particular practices or policies separated the candidates, there was no doubt about what was on the minds of Puebloans based on the questions — and there were no softballs. Even the moderator, John Merriman of the Colorado School Boards Association, took a moment to reflect on the quality of the questions, which he said were some of the most rigorous he’s seen during his many years of coordinating superintendent searches. From the first questions on improving Pueblo’s chronically low-performing schools to the last on succession plans, audience questions were pointed and covered a lot of controversial ground. Whichever finalist is selected, they’ll have a full plate on July 1.

3. But there are no new answers — Despite the fact that two of the three finalists hail from outside Pueblo’s city limits, none of the candidates proposed any new or showstopping strategies to turnaround Pueblo’s schools. Is it fair to play it safe while interviewing for a job? Sure. But an increasing body of research shows what struggling schools and districts need more than anything is a leader willing to take risks and buck the status quo. The willingness to be a game changer wasn’t apparent in any of the candidates. They stuck to familiar turns of phrase and education jargon district officials here (and elsewhere, to be fair) have been using to describe their turnaround efforts. One veteran teacher, upon leaving the forum, summed it up this way: “meh.”

Live Blog

8:07 p.m. The forum is ending. CASB executive John Merrimam says the Pueblo City Schools board has a hard job to pick just one superintendent. Here are some of the closing thoughts from the candidates.

Seifert: “I have the hometown advantage,” she jokes. She says being a finalist is humbling and looks forward to continuing to work with Pueblo students and parents.

Jones: “I want to serve as superintendent at a school district where everyone believes all students can achieve.” She believes Pueblo can be one of the highest performing districts in the state and nation.

Johnstone: Thirteen years ago, when the city had one of the most recognized programs in the state, she called district leaders to learn what they were doing to help kids. Since then, she said, she’s had an eye on the district and has wanted to be here. “You have great schools.”

8:02 p.m. All three candidates are asked the following question: should districts have a leadership succession plan in order to promote within?

Seifert: She had a succession plan when she was a superintendent back east. However, it’s important for leaders to be ready for their job, and if they aren’t, new blood needs to be brought in to help fill gaps.

Johnstone: Teacher- leaders are the next big thing. She also wholeheartedly promoting teachers to building leaders.

Jones: It’s extremely important to not leave a system vulnerable by only having one person knowing how everything works. However, bringing fresh eyes to a system can be beneficial.

7:57 p.m. All three candidates are asked to share their history with working with charter schools and how they’d support them in Pueblo.

Jones: In Florida, her district has about 25 charter schools. Making sure those charter schools were in compliance with state policies was part of her job description. She says if she’s named Pueblo’s next superintendent, she’d comply with all of Colorado’s laws regarding charter school funding. Working collaboratively with charter schools is a good thing, she says. However, she has some reservations about “privatizing” education.

Seifert: She has beef with a local online charter school, the Goal Academy. But, she will stand up for any quality school that can do something a district run school can’t fulfill. That’s rarely the case, she says.

Johnstone: She says parents should investigate charters very thoroughly.

7:50 p.m. Seifert is answering a similar questions about professional development.

At her high school, she shares videos of teachers doing good things in their classrooms most Fridays. “We’ve had a lot of positive results from teachers teaching other teachers,” she said.

7:47 p.m. Jones is now answering a question about her feelings on professional learning communities, a practice most Pueblo schools are using, and whether she would want the district to use it systemwide.

Jones says it’s a very important strategy. As a school system, she says, it’s important to define the expectations and decide what the community wants to achieve. Those communities can’t just be a staff meeting about how the copy machine never works, she says. “Teaching can be an isolating experience,” she said. But a learning community can change that.

7:41 p.m. Johnstone is asked about some of her favorite professional development practices.

She says development needs to be targeted and tailored to the needs of teachers. It’s not a specific program, she says, but being able to know what your teachers need.

7:40 p.m. Seifert is answering this question: How do you balance cultural diversity with the need for all students to achieve?

The new teacher evaluation models ask teachers to get to know their students better. This is a good thing, she says. I think we do a good job, informally. And the new evaluation tools is formalizing the process. Understanding your students’ backgrounds is now an official best-practice, she says.

Additionally, parents need to understand their students can’t learn if they’re not in class. Poor student attendance is actually a burden on our local economy she says.

7:39 p.m. How would you enlist the community for help, Jones is asked. She says she’d like to host open forum with the community.

7:37 p.m. This question is just for Johnstone: how will you increase parent involvement?

The Brush School district has implemented a 360-degree feedback program, Johnstone says. Her parents are regularly surveyed and survey results are shared with the school board. “It was slow at first,” she admits.

7:33 p.m. Will you be willing to set up alternative schools for students who don’t fit into traditional classrooms? All three finalists are answering this question.

Seifert: The transitional classroom may not be accessible to all students. She says setting up alternative schools is always a good thing, so long as the options are student-driven and not for the benefit of the adults.

Johnstone: “When kids are struggling, I want to know first and foremost why are those students struggling,” she says. School leaders need to find out what will work best for students and then hold them accountable. Parents, teachers and administrators need to work together as a team for the students.

Jones: Schools should always try to find more options for students. In Florida, she’s helped expand tech and career studies. It’s provided the kinds of hooks needed to engage students (and has the added benefit of being a deterrent). I would be very open to see what we can be able to do to help every student be successful, she says. Students should also be held to a code of conduct.

7:24 p.m. Describe your relationship with teachers unions. All three candidates are answering this question.

Jones: Her Florida school district and its union work through a consensus process, she said. The challenge is to honor the process, she said, especially during lean years. The important thing is to end up with a contract that both sides can “live with and support.” In 10 years she’s been on the district’s bargaining team there has always been a fully ratified contract.

Seifert: She was a union president. She says there is likely to always be friction because there are a lot of needs and limited money.

Johnstone: She says she appreciates her union. They have a meet-and-confirm process. “There is nothing you can’t bring up,” she says. She meets monthly with her union leaders and uses the time to bounce ideas off them. Negotiated contracts are a good thing, she says.

7:18 p.m. The next few questions all three candidates are answering: discuss your plans to reside in Pueblo and how long would you like to stay?

The two out-of-towners (Johnstone and Jones) say they look forward to living in Pueblo and would stay for quiet a while.

“I don’t have any plans for retirement,” Jones said.

Seifert, who currently leads a local high school, echoes Jones. “I would never live anywhere else.”

7:16 p.m. There’s a lack of nurses and counselors to address mental health needs of students, goes the next question for Seifert. What can we do about it?

Seifert says as a superintendent she increased the number of nurses at her schools. In our economy today, she says, parents are working two or three jobs. And that means they might not have time to take their children to the doctor. Providing health care to students is a benefit the district should provide.

7:13 p.m. The next question for Jones: Should the district invest more in technology to improve outcomes and cut expenses?

Jones said her school district has invested in technology and two benefits have been concurrent enrollment opportunities for students and web-based professional development for school leaders. However, there is tremendous value for professional development in the flesh-and-blood.

7:10 p.m. The next question for Johnstone: what steps would you take to expand post-secondary options for students who are not college bound?

Johnstone has worked with students who have been suspended or expelled in Morgan County. She found an early intervention grant for at-risk students. It provides classroom time and the ability to complete career and tech course at a local community college.

This year will be the second year her district has participated in it.

7:06 p.m. Seifert gets a similar question.

She says neither the Common Core standards nor the new PARCC tests have not been proven effective. But she doesn’t think the state has a lot of choice in the matter because of the federal dollars tied to some of the testing requirements tied to the No Child Left Behind law.

“There are a lot of unknowns,” she said. “I wish we didn’t have to use our children in this process.”

7:04 p.m. Jones gets the Common Core question. On a scale of 1 to 10, how beneficial are they?

She says a 7. Standards are a good thing, “I believe they are important to guide us and serve as a road map,” she says.

Common Core asks student to apply knowledge, she says.

But there are aspects of “things” that have been attached to the Common Core that gives her pause. And she’s a supporter of local control. That’s why she can’t give the standards a higher score.

7:02 p.m. Is the data yielded from standardized tests worth the loss of instructional time?

Johnstone explains the reason why we test: accountability and to drive instruction. But, she says, the amount of testing has gotten out of hand. She’s suggested to the state’s education commissioner that he state should only test every three years.

7 p.m. The next budget question is to Seifert: How would you hold the district accountable for each and every expenditure?

Seifert says she learned how to budget as a principal. Her expertise grew as a superintendent in Tennessee. She’s asked her school leaders to write out priorities. “What can’t you live without?” she asked.

Budgets are tricky, she continues, you have to protect the needs of the student while allowing your employees to provide for their own families.

More recently, at her current high school, she had to decide between a counselor or a new teacher. She choose the new teacher while her administrative team picked up the slack of the counselor.

“We’ve seen some nice results from that,” she said. “We’ve gotten to know the students better.”

6:53 p.m. Some believe the district is top heavy, the next question to Jones begins. Does that have something to do with our budget crisis?

Jones says central staff is important to a district, to lend support to schools. But schools need to come first, she says. The No. 1 priority needs to be a properly staffed school with highly qualified teachers, who are compensated well and have the resources they need.

6:46 p.m. This question to Johnstone: how do you plan to balance the needs of students and teachers while the district is facing a multi-million dollar deficit?

She says budget cuts in Colorado’s schools are nothing new. At the Brush School District, which she currently leads, they’ve implemented a zero-based budgeting system. That means they build a budget from zero each year, rather than cut or add dollars each year.

The one goal through-and-through, she says, is boosting student achievement. And when forming a district’s budget you have to align your priorities with that outcome in mind.

6:46 p.m. Question to Seifert: what would you do to improve Pueblo’s accreditation status?

Seifert says, it’s the central administration’s job not to beat up teachers, but work with them in the trenches. She wants to use research-based practices in the classroom. She says central administrators need to be closer to the classroom. “The district office is better served going to the school,” rather than the school going to the district head quarters, she says.

She says there are good things happening in Pueblo schools and the “turnaround” labels are like the gum stuck to the bottom of the city’s metaphorical shoe.

6:44 pm. The second question is for Jones. It’s about her history of working in low-performing schools.

She says Florida, where she’s from has a similar, accreditation process. She says it’s incredibly important to understand the “rules” to be defined as high performing. “I’m happy to say, what we’ve always done is target resources and professional development based on needs … to help the students,” she said.

Jones said her district has now been rated an “A” for the last three years.

6:40 p.m. First question is about Pueblo’s accreditation status. It goes to Johnstone.

Johnstone says shifting demographics and leadership turnover played big parts in Pueblo’s accreditation status. She says if she gets the job, she’d increase data-driven instruction and focus on best practices that are working. She said the district’s writing scores are all over the place and that needs to be changed.

6:31 p.m. The forum is starting. Each superintendent finalist will have three minutes to answer each question. The candidates are now introducing themselves.

6:24 p.m. The room is beginning to fill up. About 30 folks. John Merriam of the Colorado Association of School Boards, the contracted search firm, will be lobbing the questions at the candidates. According to the Merriam, 94 questions were submitted. The city’s board members are seated in the audience with the rest of the public. Audience members are being asked to fill out a form identifying strengths and concerns for each candidate.

6:01 p.m. The Pueblo City Schools board room is nearly empty. That makes one man’s sign that reads “air condition all schools & classrooms!” that much bigger. A tech is making final adjustments on the live stream that is available here.

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