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Community angst growing as decision on new Sheridan superintendent nears

First grader Julieta Galaviz-Montoya works with her highlighter at Alice Terry Elementary School on Oct. 2, 2012.
First grader Julieta Galaviz-Montoya works with her highlighter at Alice Terry Elementary School on Oct. 2, 2012.
Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post

As the Sheridan school board looks to replace its long-serving superintendent, some teachers and parents say they are eager for change and a leader who will be more representative of the district. Board members must decide between staying the course after some improvement or taking a chance on bigger changes.

Superintendent Michael Clough, who is retiring in June, led the tiny Sheridan district just south of Denver’s west side for the last decade as a vocal proponent for increased school funding, and was sometimes at odds with state officials. He helped the district earn a higher performance rating just in time to avoid state sanctions.

But the district of about 1,400 students, where almost 25 percent of students are experiencing homelessness, is still considered low performing by several measures, and many teachers, parents, and students are asking for bigger changes.

“I understand that we’ve made some great strides. However, we are a struggling district, and we have a lot of problems,” said Peter Morris, a district teacher and president of the teachers union. “Teachers here are very stressed. We have the longest hours for teachers, the lowest salary schedule, and some of the most challenging teaching conditions, so teachers do want change and we do want to serve students better.”

Colorado Department of Education
Colorado Department of Education

There are three finalists in the running to replace Clough. Two of the finalists, Kirk Henwood and Pat Sandos, are already Sheridan administrators. The third candidate, Antonio Esquibel, is a long-time Denver educator who could represent the biggest change for the district.

After attending the board interviews of the three candidates last week, Morris said teachers found Esquibel’s vision “inspiring.”

But many are concerned that the four-member board, which has been unable to seat a fifth member for more than a decade, may be incapable of reaching a consensus. Two of the members, one white and one Hispanic, have been on the board for at least nine years. The other two, a Hispanic woman and a Native American man, were just elected in November.

Board member Sally Daigle, who has served on the board since 2009, said that as she’s deliberating with the board about the finalists, she wants to find one candidate who can start work right away and continue the progress the district is already making.

“My feeling is we have worked extremely hard since 2009, since I’ve been on the board, and I want that to continue,” Daigle said. “I don’t want to go backwards in any way shape or form. I don’t want a bunch of processes and meetings and kind of that year-long or year-and-a-half-long period to figure out what needs to happen.”

New board member Daniel Stange, who describes himself as having Native American Apache and Mexican roots, said he is listening to the wishes of many in Sheridan “that have not had a voice or have not had someone represent them in the past.”

“We’ve received feedback from parents, from community members, from students,” Stange said. “It’s a very clear message that there’s a need for change.”

It’s unclear what would happen if a board majority can’t agree on one candidate. With an even number of members, there’s no one to break a tie vote.

“We’re deliberating now,” said Bernadette Saleh, the board president who has served since 2005. “We haven’t come to that, so it hasn’t been an issue.”

One option the board may consider is to seat a recent applicant for the empty board seat.

For more than 10 years, the school board had not found anyone from that part of the district willing to serve on the school board – until recently. Juanita Camacho, who sits on Sheridan’s city council with Daigle, submitted an application earlier this year to be appointed to the vacancy. At the time, the board decided to first allow the current board to complete the superintendent search, which was already underway, before appointing the new member.

But the board could reverse that decision. The board could also consider going back to other applicants who weren’t named as finalists.

The search process, led by the consulting firm Ray and Associates, resulted in 70 applications. The process included a survey and community forums to solicit input from parents, students, staff, and residents about the qualities most important in a superintendent.

At the top of list from that feedback: the need for the next leader to have “experience and expertise turning around a low-performing school district by implementing best practices.”

Indira Guzman, a mother of two district students and a community organizer for Sheridan Rising Together for Equity, said she and other parents participated in the process and shared that they wanted to see someone who had high expectations for all students and who was culturally responsive.

Months earlier, the organization had worked with parents to analyze problems in the district and identify causes. The group concluded that some problems stem from a lack of community involvement.

“We felt that it was because the administrators, the people in leadership, they don’t feel that our community knows what’s best,” Guzman said. “They don’t trust in the community’s ability to decide what’s best for their families.”

Guzman said that when students presented the findings at a school board meeting earlier this year, they compared the district’s attitudes to those of white supremacy.

In the small community of Sheridan, things have changed a lot in the last 10 years. While Sheridan has always been a diverse city, there are new immigrants moving in that are sometimes at odds with other residents, including older-generation immigrants.

According to census data the percent of Hispanics has slowly grown as the percent of white residents in Sheridan has dropped. District numbers show that while enrollment has been dropping overall, 88 percent of Sheridan students are students of color this year, up from 81.9 percent in the fall of 2010. And like elsewhere in the metro area, the city has seen new development and rising housing costs that are pricing some families out.

Damar Garcia, a senior at Sheridan High School and a member of a student group led by Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, said students haven’t felt like their voice has been heard. She said many students aren’t happy with changes they’ve seen at their school this year, including changes to concurrent enrollment programs.

Now, she said, they’re excited by the hope that someone else might hear them out, particularly by the one outside, Hispanic candidate that many are excited about.

“It makes us feel valued as students to see someone who comes from our background in a position of power because they will listen to us,” Garcia said. “It’s exciting. It makes us feel like we’re moving forward, especially after two people of color got elected to the school board. It was a big deal for us. These are people who are listening.”

Correction: The story has been updated to more accurately describe one veteran board member’s racial identity.

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