Controversy surrounded Dan McMinimee’s summer 2014 hiring as superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools, the state’s second largest school district.
Some worried he was inexperienced, that he would be paid too much and that he would bring many of the conservative, market-based reforms of the Douglas County school district, where he previously worked.
Yet while working under two completely different school boards in less than three years — one that hired him and one that took over after a heated recall campaign — McMinimee has focused on his district work and gotten things done, various people agree.
That may not be enough to save his job.
The Jeffco school board is scheduled to vote Thursday night on launching a search for a new superintendent, in effect telling McMinimee he will no longer be needed after his contract expires at the end of June.
The school board’s discussion about McMinimee — which included two closed-door meetings — didn’t start over concerns with McMinimee’s performance, said Ron Mitchell, chairman of the school board. He declined to say what did prompt the talks.
“I think there are a lot of things Dan McMinimee has done for Jeffco schools and has done well,” Mitchell said. “The politics of Jeffco have been challenging. I honestly believe that Dan worked hard to serve the current board.”
That’s what’s puzzling, McMinimee told Chalkbeat Wednesday afternoon.
“There’s been no indication that there was a problem,” McMinimee said. “There’s been a big change in the climate since I arrived. I thought we were moving forward.”
In his time as superintendent, McMinimee has helped Jeffco create a new strategic vision, increased the number of college classes high school students take and moved the district to a student-based budget system that gave principals more control over how to spend money in their schools. His team has reformed the way teachers get paid — twice — and helped negotiate a longer contract for teachers.
The district’s teachers union — which vehemently opposed the the board members who hired McMinimee — did not respond to a request for a comment about McMinimee’s work or potential departure.
It’s not uncommon for districts to change superintendents often — or for newly elected school boards to want their own person in the job.
Most superintendents tend to stay in their roles for about three years, and in some years as many of 25 percent of Colorado’s school districts are searching for new superintendents, said Mark DeVoti, assistant executive director for the Colorado Association of School Boards. School board turnover is one of many factors that plays into that, he said.
Leonor Lucero, a mother of two Jeffco students, said she’s disappointed the board is considering breaking ties with McMinimee.
“Dan has worked well with both boards,” said Lucero, who opposed the recall of conservative school board members who hired McMinimee. “He’s not controversial. He’s working with them not against them.”
She said she wishes the board would keep McMinimee to give the district some stability needed after district setbacks including when voters in November turned down the school district’s two ballot measures asking for tax increases.
“The school district has gone through a lot,” Lucero said. “We’ve had a recall, a whole new school board starting from scratch, the failing of the 3A and 3B ballot measures… and there’s a new election coming up. I think they should just let Jeffco settle.”
The board finalized an evaluation in September used to determine if McMinimee was eligible for up to $40,000 in bonuses tied to district goals. The board found McMinimee helped the district reach more than half of the goals, including raising scores on state tests and on the ACT test, and creating school accountability teams at every district school.
McMinimee received the lowest scores of partially effective on three out of the 12 goals including one related to creating a new charter school application process, and for mixed results increasing the number of third-graders meeting or exceeding expectations in reading. Based on the review, McMinimee received $20,000 in performance pay.
Yet the board was not entirely pleased with McMinimee’s a draft of his suggested goals late last year, asking for more goals that can be tied data, and suggesting some goals sounded more like job expectations and not additional goals for bonuses.
One of McMinimee’s bigger reforms in Jeffco involved turning two high schools into seventh through 12th grade schools in a reconfiguration of two boundary areas on the eastern side of the district where a larger number of students are low-income and English language learners.
Joel Newton, executive director of the Edgewater Collective, which is working with schools that have been affected by those changes, also said he’s happy with McMinimee’s work.
“I have been very impressed by his leadership skills in our area specifically and in our efforts,” Newton said. “He’s been very focused on student achievement and building bridges. He’s been very visible in our area.”
McMinimee’s contract will expire June 30 unless the board notifies him of an extension by March 31.
Asked if he expects to serve the remainder of his contract, McMinimee said it’s up to the board for now.
“It’s a hard position to be in when you’re no longer focused on the future,” McMinimee said. “When a CEO is removed from a major company or a head coach is removed from a team, they don’t stay around for spring practice or for the next six months.”
The work in the months ahead includes budgeting, including finding ways to raise teacher salaries for negotiation discussions and making cuts after the loss of the school tax measures, hiring of principals and district staff as well as adjusting programs for next year.
The challenge in Jeffco has also been trying to bridge a community that was divided by a divisive recall election. But it’s a large geographic area with too many people who may never completely agree on the district’s philosophy, McMinimee said.
“For me if we could all get to the point of focusing on student achievement and opportunity, that would be the goal,” McMinimee said. “I still think we’re a ways from that, and I’m not sure that one person is responsible for that.”
This story has been updated to include updated data provided by Mark DeVoti about the average time superintendents stay in their role.