Dougco seeking super superintendent

Wanted: Proven leader, passionate about children, supportive of school choice and educational options, commitment to performance-based compensation, good communicator, adept at innovative money management strategies.

And we DO mean adept at innovation. As in, how the heck do we make up a $30 million budget shortfall in a county where low taxes are a mantra and the board of education is viewed by some as an extension of the county Republican Party, yet parents still expect their kids to academically outperform every other school district in the state?

That’s no easy task facing the next Douglas County superintendent of schools, so the school board is doing its homework to improve the odds of finding just the right person for the job. The board has hired a search firm and hopes to begin interviewing candidates by mid-March, and to have someone in place by summer. The new superintendent will replace Jim Christensen, who resigned last fall.

On Monday, board members spent nearly two hours picking the brain of Rick Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a pro-business Washington think tank with deep ties to the neo-conservative movement. Hess is long-time supporter of charter schools, merit pay for teachers, innovative staffing policies and other strategies that depart from school district business as usual.

“We have historically given a great deal of latitude to our superintendents. We have a culture of not meddling in the details too much,” said board chairman John Carson. “We want to maintain that. We want to set the direction of the ship but the person we hire will run it lock, stock and barrel. What should we be looking for?” he asked Hess. “Do we want a conventional superintendent? Someone with a non-conventional background?”

Hess’s advice: “There’s no magic in being non-traditional,” he said. “In 20 years, we’ve tried an array of generals and lawyers. What matters is the context in which you bring in that new leader, the teams they build, the systems at their disposal, the data, the staff, and their skills and knowledge. So don’t think that if you just get the right coach everything else figures itself out. Getting that right leader is just one piece of a larger puzzle.”

Is the board looking for its next superintendent to implement practices that currently don’t exist in K-12 education? If so, then look for someone outside the field of education, Hess advised. “But to the extent that what you want to do is build on what is already familiar, do a better job with things that are familiar to K-12 education, then someone from inside would be better,” he said.

On the surface, running the 55,000-student Douglas County school system would appear to be a plum assignment. Its students are at or near the top of virtually every measure of academic achievement in Colorado. Decades of fast-paced residential growth have left it with new buildings, thriving campuses and a top-notch reputation. The communities it serves are high-income. Few Douglas County children confront the poverty-related difficulties borne by some neighboring school districts.

Yet all is not rosy. In 2008, Douglas County voters declined to approve school district requests for a bond issue and mill levy override. That, combined with cuts in state funding, have produced the current budget dilemma. More than 1,000 community members turned out for a board meeting last week at which the topic was proposed budget cuts. On the table are increases in fees parents must pay, along with staff cutbacks and larger class sizes.

Beyond the immediate need to balance the district’s budget, a recent survey of faculty, administrators, parents and community members consistently found concerns about the influence of partisan politics on education in the district, concerns about staff morale, issues of trust, the need to redefine the district’s merit pay policies, and the perception that public statements made by board members have devalued the quality of education in the district.

For whatever reason, fewer people have expressed interest in the Douglas County job than one might expect.

“The numbers of candidates, generally speaking, are smaller than they have been in the past for other searches,” acknowledges Ellen Bartlett, former assistant superintendent for Douglas County Schools, now an associate with Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, the executive search firm that’s spearheading the district’s search. “I think that’s a sign of the times,” she said.

“The financial issues we’re experiencing in Colorado are similar to what people are experiencing across the country. I can’t say for sure whether Douglas County’s budget situation is making a difference in candidates’ decision to apply or not. School districts everywhere are facing hard financial times. It’s just a matter of degree.”

Bartlett said some very strong candidates have already emerged in the hunt, however, and that the district should be able to meet the timeline it set for itself.

Based on the results of the survey, which also asked the various constituent groups to  rank the characteristics they’d like to see in a new superintendent, the board on Feb. 11 settled on its search criteria.

They want their new superintendent to be passionate about success for all children, supportive of school choice, and committed to merit pay.

They’re attracted to someone with a non-traditional background – maybe someone like John Barry the retired U.S. Air Force major general who has transformed the struggling  Aurora Public Schools into one of Colorado’s most intriguing education stories – but that’s not a deal breaker. But they want someone with a track record of success in leadership, strong public relations skills, visibility within the community, and yes, a strong understanding of innovative money management strategies.

They want a politically savvy innovator, a charismatic leader, a motivator and a creative problem solver who is accessible, open and responsive to parents, staff and the community, someone with outstanding interpersonal skills and the courage to do what’s right for children.

“We just need a leader,” says Brenda Smith, president of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers – a group that saw voters in the fall elect every one of the four candidates it opposed in the school board election. “And if they’re unconventional, then they need to be able to move the community in that direction along with them.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”