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On first day, McMinimee calms and challenges Jeffco staff

Jeffco Public Schools Superintendent Dan McMinimee, center, meets with district staff July 1, his first day on the job at the district's headquarters in Golden.
Jeffco Public Schools Superintendent Dan McMinimee, center, meets with district staff July 1, his first day on the job at the district's headquarters in Golden.
Nicholas Garcia

GOLDEN — On his first official day as superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools, Dan McMinimee attempted to soothe the fears of district staff after months of angst and uncertainty.

McMinimee told about 200 central administration employees who gathered for a 1 p.m. meeting at the district’s headquarters that his leadership will not be a “total departure” from how the suburban school district has operated, as some had feared. He used the meeting — part meet-and-greet, part corporate pep rally — to share his personal philosophy, squash rumors, make jokes, and build excitement for the next school year.

McMinimee — who previously was the assistant superintendent in neighboring Douglas County School District — replaces Cindy Stevenson, who led the district for 12 years. She left her post abruptly in February, accelerating a plan to retire after elections stacked the school board with people who opposed her leadership.

Stevenson’s departure left the district, with its 85,000 students and 14,000 employees, without a superintendent this spring. The board’s president, Ken Witt, backed by board members Julie Williams and John Newkirk, bucked conventional practices by not appointing an interim leader. Instead, they asked Jeffco’s top deputies to report directly to them during the search process.

Coming on top of a tense election in which the victorious candidates pledged to make substantive changes in the district, the unusual arrangement thrust Jeffco into turmoil. Board meetings grew tense — and conflicts started during them spilled out onto social media and, in a few cases, the streets of Jefferson County — as teachers, staff, and community members raised concerns about the board’s ambitions for the district. McMinimee’s selection in May also drew sharp criticism, in part because he helped lead Dougco at a time when the district was rolling out policies that challenged the teachers union there.

On Tuesday, McMinimee worked to quell those concerns, repeating several times during his speech that he supports the work already happening in Jeffco and those who are doing it.

“People in this room need to know they’re safe and there is a job for them here,” he said.

But he also challenged them to find new ways to make the suburban school district the best for every student, regardless of their zip code. And he said, if anyone has an idea of a better way to do their job that would improve student learning, he wants to hear about it.

Replicating and improving the best of Jeffco Public Schools, of which his own children are graduates, and creating a climate where every employee is able to contribute, are his main focuses, he said.

“Preserving the best [of Jeffco], while moving us forward, that’s where the struggle is going to be,” he said at the gathering in the district headquarter’s fifth floor board room.

The crowd was largely silent, even as McMinimee attempted to draw listeners out with questions. But afterward staff said they found new confidence in McMinimee.

Jill Colby, a retired principal who now serves as the executive director of the district’s administrative association, said McMinimee made his case that he wants to build upon what’s already in place in Jeffco. She said she appreciates that McMinimee is not pushing specific policies until he has a better understanding of how Jeffco operates.

Ashley O’Donnell, secretary to the director of special education, said she’s more confident in McMinimee after Tuesday’s meeting.

“All we’ve seen is the negative,” she said. “He was solid. I’m impressed for the better.”

But McMinimee still has much to do to win over the district’s largest employee bloc, said Ami Prichard, the former teachers union president.

“Teachers are still very concerned,” she said during an interview with Chalkbeat before the district meeting. “There have been a lot of questions raised, about where he stands with the changes that have been made in Douglas County.”

In Dougco, McMinimee served as lead negotiator for the district during contract talks with the teachers union that ultimately ended in a stalemate and left educators without a collective bargaining agreement.

Unconstrained by a contract, the Dougco school board has implemented a controversial teacher evaluation program and market-based salaries.

“I believe he can show with his actions that he’s an advocate for teachers,” Prichard said. “I wish him the best of luck. It is a very tough job he’s moving into. It’s going to be hard and he’s going to need help. And we’re all interested in making our district as strong as possible.”

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