Jeffco Interrupted

Jeffco superintendent announces retirement

Jeffco Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson told the school board Thursday night that she’s retiring effective at the end of the school year, next June 30.

Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson / File photo
Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson / File photo

Stevenson’s announcement comes two days after a slate of three conservative candidates took the majority on the five-member board of the 85,000-student district.

The superintendent was diplomatic in an interview with EdNews, saying, “When you have a major change on the board they have their own plans. I just feel like it’s time. Twelve years is a long time. … I have eight months yet. … We’re going to have a great transition. We’ll have everybody ready for a great new world.”

Choking up a little over the phone, Stevenson said, “It’s been a great run; I’ve loved every day.”

Stevenson, who started as a kindergartener at South Lakewood Elementary School, has spent her entire professional life in the district, including stints as a teacher, principal and multiple jobs in the district’s central administration.

She’s been superintendent since 2002 and has been prominent in state education groups and circles.

“The past 12 years have been the best years of my life. This is an exceptional school district and it’s been my honor to lead an amazing staff of talented people. I’d like to thank my team, the community and our students – they have made my life joyful,” Stevenson said in a statement.

In recent years she’s been increasingly criticized by conservative citizen groups, most recently over the district’s pilot use of inBloom, a data system that can aggregate student personal and academic information and link such data with online instructional materials that teachers can use to personalize teaching.

Shortly after Stevenson’s announcement, the board voted to sever the district’s arrangement with inBloom, an initiative that has been pushed and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Those groups also have criticized district spending and expenses under Stevenson.

Jeffco has had the state’s largest enrollment for many years, but its student population has been stagnant in recent years as the county population has aged and changed. Jeffco is expected to be passed in enrollment this year by the Denver Public Schools. That stagnant enrollment has created tensions in parts of the district where the administration had considered closing schools.

The district administration also has had a close and collaborative working relationship with the county teachers union, the Jefferson County Education Association. Kerrie Dallman, former head of that group, now is president of the statewide Colorado Education Association.

On Tuesday conservative candidates Julie Williams, John Newkirk and Ken Witt won three open seats on the board by comfortable margins. All had been endorsed by the county Republican Party, and an independent committee named Believe in Better Schools reported spending $22,804, most of it in support of those three candidates. Spending was on newspaper and social media advertising and on direct mail.

The group received its funding from Jeffco Students First Action, a group that has been critical of district policies but which itself doesn’t have to report its contributors.

The three winners actually were outspent by their opponents, Tonya Aultman-Bettridge, Jeff Lamontagne and Gordon Van de Water, who were considered to have closer ties to district administration and who were supported by the union. (See this story by EdNews partner for more background on the Jeffco election.)

A former Jeffco board member and prominent Jeffco business leader told EdNews Thursday that he thought the three conservative candidates’ opposition to Amendment 66 also helped them win. That proposed $950 million tax increase for education was defeated with a 64.6 percent no vote statewide and had a 65.3 percent no vote in Jeffco.

Under the formula in A66’s companion legislation, Senate Bill 13-213, Jeffco would have received only a 9.6 percent increase in per-pupil funding, compared to an 11.6 percent average increase statewide, and Jeffco residents would have paid more in increased income taxes than the district would have received in additional funding.

A slate of GOP candidates made a run at Jeffco board seats two years ago but were unsuccessful.

In addition to retaining control in Dougco and gaining it in Jeffco, it appears that conservative candidates now control the Thompson school board and have a strong minority in the Greeley district. But a GOP-endorsed slate was defeated in the Grand Junction-based Mesa 51 district.

Overt partisan involvement in school board races first surfaced in Douglas County four years ago, when a slate of GOP-endorsed candidates took control of the board. That majority since has expanded school choice options in the district, ended the contractual relationship with the county teachers union and approved a voucher program, which currently is being challenged in the courts.

Idea pitch

Despite concerns, Jeffco school board agrees to spend $1 million to start funding school innovations

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Jeffco school employees can apply for a piece of a $1 million fund that will pay for an innovative idea for improving education in the district.

The school board for Jeffco Public Schools on Thursday approved shifting $1 million from the district’s rainy day fund to an innovation pool that will be used to provide grants to launch the new ideas.

The district will be open for applications as soon as Friday.

The board had reservations about the plan, which was proposed by the new schools superintendent, Jason Glass, in November, as part of a discussion about ways to encourage innovation and choice in the district. The board was concerned about how quickly the process was set to start, whether there was better use of the money, and how they might play a role in the process.

Glass conceded that the idea was an experiment and that pushing ahead so quickly might create some initial problems.

“This effort is going to be imperfect because it’s the first time that we’ve done it and we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Glass said. “There are going to be problems and there are going to be things we learn from this. It’s sort of a micro experiment. We’re going to learn a lot about how to do this.”

During the November discussion, Glass had suggested one use for the innovation money: a new arts school to open in the fall to attract students to the district. He said that the money could also be used to help start up other choice schools. School board members balked, saying they were concerned that a new arts school would compete with existing arts programs in Jeffco schools. The board, which is supported by the teachers union, has been reluctant to open additional choice schools in the district, instead throwing most of their support behind the district-run schools.

Board members also expressed concerns about what they said was a rushed process for starting the fund.

The plan calls for teachers, school leaders and other district employees to apply for the money by pitching their idea and explaining its benefit to education in the district. A committee will then consider the proposals and recommend those that should be funded out of the $1 million.

Board members said they felt it was too soon to start the application process on Friday. They also questioned why the money could not also help existing district programs.

“I think a great deal of innovation is happening,” said board member Amanda Stevens.

Some board members also suggested that one of them should serve on the committee, at least to monitor the process. But Glass was adamant.

“Do you want me to run the district and be the superintendent or not?” Glass asked the board. “I can set this up and execute it, but what you’re talking about is really stepping over into management, so I caution you about that.”

Glass later said he might be open to finding another way for board members to be involved as observers, but the board president, Ron Mitchell, said he would rather have the superintendent provide thorough reports about the process. The discussion is expected to resume at a later time.

Stevens said many of the board’s questions about details and the kind of ideas that will come forth will, presumably, be answered as the process unfolds.

“Trying is the only way we get any of that information,” Stevens said.

year in review

A new superintendent and a new vision for Jeffco schools in 2017

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools started the year making big news when its board of education decided to open a search for a new superintendent. Former Superintendent Dan McMinimee left the role in March before a new leader had been hired.

Just before he left, McMinimee proposed to the Jeffco school board a plan to close five schools as a way to save money so the district could raise staff salaries as the board had directed.

The schools recommended for closure served a disproportionate number of low-income students and housed several centers for students with special needs. They also included a high-performing school. Officials said they did not consider academic achievement in selecting the schools.

In addition to closing five schools, the proposal suggested cuts to other programs, including one for helping students develop social and emotional skills and one that helped students struggling with reading.

But in a last-minute move, the superintendent altered the proposal during a school board meeting just before the board was set to vote. In the end, the board voted to close one elementary school and spare four others as well as the programs.

A few months later, the school board selected Jason Glass as the district’s new superintendent. Glass, who was a superintendent in Eagle County at the time, had a history as a reformer helping create pay-for-performance systems. But he changed his support of some reforms after learning about education systems around the world.

One of the first changes Glass announced in Jeffco was a timeout on any school closure recommendations while district officials review and create a new process for deciding if school closures are necessary and if so, which schools to close.

Glass also published his vision for Jeffco, which will have the district take a closer look at inequities and outside factors that affect students, such as poverty. At least one school was already experimenting with that work by moving to a community school model. And the district was already considering outside factors as they were rolling out restorative practices, which change how school leaders respond to student discipline issues.

More recently, Glass asked the board, which will remain the same after the November election, to consider an expansion of school choice in Jeffco with proposals to create new options schools such as an arts school to help attract new students to the district. District officials may release more information about that plan and other changes, like a study on high school start times, in the coming months.