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.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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