dramarama

Jeffco board president seeks executive session to discuss superintendent

Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson.

The Jeffco Public Schools’ board president Thursday night requested an executive session to be held Saturday to discuss a personnel matter regarding Superintendent Cindy Stevenson.

The request caught some board members and Jeffco administrators by surprise. Rumors of the board president Ken Witt’s intent — to remove Stevenson from her post either by firing her outright or possibly buying out her contract — have swirled throughout the day.

“We feel like it has everything to do with firing her,” said one Jeffco central administration employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect her relationship with the board. “They keep saying ‘we’re not going to fire her,’ but they’re just mincing their words.”

Stevenson was tight lipped.

“There’s no reason for conflict,” she said, declining to comment further.

The Denver Post this morning reported the board’s lawyer, Brad Miller, denied the board planned to fire Stevenson, who in November said she’d retire at the end of the school year. It was announced this week that Stevenson will join the Colorado Association of School Executives as a consultant upon her retirement.

Neither Witt nor Miller immediately returned messages from Chalkbeat.

Witt was among a slate of three new board members elected in November. Together, Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk make a majority on the five member board. Since being sworn in, tension and suspicion have risen about the board majority’s agenda. The crowd at Thursday night’s meeting lined the walls, while several parents and observers sat on the floor in the back of the room. 

The board will meet at 8 a.m. at Jeffco headquarters. However, the board might not be able to enter an executive session if neither member of the board’s minority agrees to go behind close doors.

Both told Chalkbeat this afternoon they’re not planning on going along with Witt’s request.

“We’ll have to wait and see,” said board member Lesley Dahlkemper. “I need more detail. I think we need to be transparent with our public.”

Dahlkemper was cautious not to speculate what Witt what might want to discuss in executive session. But she said even the possibility of  a conversation in firing Stevenson, who has worked her entire career in Jeffco, “incredibly short sighted.”

Board member Jill Fellman praised Stevenson.

“She’s done an incredible job leading Jeffco to incredible heights,” she said. “I don’t know why [the majority] would want to buy out her contract.”

Jefferson County students have historically outperformed state averages on state standardized assessments. It is the state’s second largest school distric.

Stevenson’s tenure, however, has not been without controversy. Most recently, Jeffco parents raised concern over the district’s participation in piloting student data software inBloom. Stevenson was featured in a New York Times article examining the controversy. Jeffco, as well as the Colorado Department of Education, have ended their contract with inBloom.

Decision day

Unity prevails: Jeffco incumbents easily beat back challengers

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Meredith Van Deman signs the back of her 2014 mail-in ballot outside the Columbine Library in Littleton before turning it in.

The status quo has held in Jeffco Public Schools.

Two incumbents facing opposition easily defeated two challengers, ensuring that the governing board of the state’s second largest school district will remain united 5-0.

In District 1, incumbent Brad Rupert won by 20 percentage points over against Matt Van Gieson, a parent and former president of the parent teacher organization at a Jeffco charter school, Golden View Classical Academy.

In District 2, incumbent Susan Harmon claimed a similar margin over Erica Shields, a conservative Jeffco parent.

Current board president Ron Mitchell ran unopposed. The other two seats are not up for a vote this election.

The current board, supported in large part by the teachers union, was elected in 2015. That election, voters recalled three conservative board members and voted in five new members who have since hired a new superintendent, signed an extended contract with the teachers union, given some pay raises and voted to close an elementary school.

The school board incumbents raised considerably more money than the challengers, including thousands of dollars from the teachers union.

 

Keeping the peace

Jeffco voters to decide whether school board will remain united or include dissenting voices

Students at Edgewater Elementary School in Jefferson County work on iPads during class.

With little controversy, no national media attention and control of the school board not at stake, this fall’s school board race in Jefferson County has centered on whether a board that is consistently united could use a dissenting voice.

Three of the five board of education seats are up for grabs, but only two of the incumbents have challengers — a single one in each race.

A win by the two challengers, both conservatives who oppose much of what the current board has done, would not change many of the votes or direction of the school district, but it could change the conversations. Some voters now say they are weighing whether to vote to keep the stability of the current board, which often vote unanimously, or whether more diversity of thought is needed. One question is whether different voices would repeat the drama of the previous, split, school board that saw conservative members ousted in a recall election.

“Everyone in Jeffco wants us to commit to maintaining civility,” said Ron Mitchell, the board president, who is the member running unopposed. “I don’t see that changing.”

Some who support the current board say even one dissenting voice could slow down progress, distract from the current work or create doubt in voters if the district asks for a tax increase soon.

“I believe that even one or two detractors on the board will stagnate progress,” said Jeffco parent Kelly Johnson, who helped recall previous board members. “Our district has already paid too much in lost opportunities with the chaos of the past.”

Erica Shields and Matt Van Gieson, the two challengers, say they want to work with the current board.

“We are not there to disrupt,” Shields said. “We are not about that. We don’t want to return to the old type of board mentality. We want to make things better.”

The incumbents have a huge money advantage.

Those current members running for re-election — Mitchell, Susan Harmon and Brad Rupert — supported by the teachers union, have raised large amounts of money as of the last finance reports filed two weeks ago. The two in the contested race each had more than $40,000 raised, compared to about $3,200 raised by Shields and $2,300 raised by Van Gieson.

Mailers and yard signs for the incumbents advocate for all three together.

Since their election two years ago, the current board members have hired a new superintendent in Jason Glass, approved an extended contract with teachers union, given teachers a pay raise and advocated for better school funding.

Opponents Shields and Van Gieson say, recent events pushed them to consider running for school board independently, but now both also are running together, asking for voters to support them as a team.

Shields said she is running after realizing the work she does as a volunteer helping homeless people doesn’t address the root causes of the problem, which she now sees as a lack of good education opportunities for everyone.

Van Gieson, said that he hears too often from people who feel they no longer have a voice on the current school board. He said he official decided he wanted to run after a spring board meeting in which several community members asked the board not to close their schools.

School closures have not been a major issue for voters, most say, because Glass has said he would pause any school closure recommendations until district officials can create a better system for evaluating if a school should close.

Instead, campaign messages and questions at forums have centered on typical political divisions such the sources of campaign contributions, the support of teachers and positions on charter schools or private school vouchers.

“Sometimes I think there are issues created by others that are really just divisive wedges,” Mitchell said. “For example, charter schools. Every year we seem to try to drive the charter school wedge into the election.”

Mitchell said the current board is not against charters schools. In previous board discussions, Jeffco board members have expressed a desire for more authority to decide if a charter application is good enough for Jeffco, instead of just legally meeting its requirements to open.

Van Gieson, who is on the parent-teacher organization of a charter school in Jeffco, said he thinks charter schools are treated differently in Jeffco, and if elected, wants to help all schools have similar accountability.

“Where a charter school has to come in front of the board and answer for lower achievement, it would be beneficial to do the same things for neighborhood schools,” Van Gieson said.

The campaign also has included an increased focused on equity.

Joel Newton, founder of the local nonprofit Edgewater Collective, joined Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children to hosted, for the first time, a forum just for discussions on the needs of diverse learners. In previous years, the Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children has hosted a similar forum alone.

“I don’t think that was part of the conversation in the past,” Newton said. “The interesting thing now is both sides have a piece of the puzzle. One side talks about school choice…the other side makes the argument that poverty is the real issue.”

Glass, the superintendent, has emphasized the importance of the school district working with community partners to tackle poverty and other out-of-school factors that impact learning.

Tony Leffert, a Jeffco parent who lives in Golden and supports the new superintendent, said the issue on his mind is keeping the current board on track. He said adding a dissenting voice to the board, could set up a possibility for the minority opinion to take control of the board in two years.

“Given the last school board election that we had, every school board election is important in Jeffco going forward,” Leffert said. “We do not want a repeat of that again.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to note that a forum on the needs of diverse learners, which was hosted for the first time with the Edgewater Collective, has been hosted in the past by Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children.