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Political showdowns between school boards, superintendents can leave lingering scars

May 4, 2014 Updated: May 4, 2014 at 8:47 am
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Principal Grant Schmidt visits with students in the lunch room Friday, May 2, 2014, at Prairie Heights Elementary School in the Hanover school district. Schmidt invites students into his office to have lunch with him every day. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

There are fights about money and what is best for the kids. Communication is lousy. Trust dissolves. Acquaintances take sides. Rumors spread. Media headlines are unflattering. The money in the separation agreement becomes a big deal. When it's over, new relationships bloom.

A celebrity marriage gone awry? Could be.

It's also a script for some relationships between school district superintendents and school boards.

While marriages are said to often fall apart after seven years, the average district stay for a superintendent in Colorado is three and a half years.

Most superintendent farewells are accomplished without a lot of rancor. But when the infighting is intense and headline-making, everyone - the administrator, the school board and the district - might look bad. Sometimes the scars are tough to heal, say consultants.

"Education is a very passionate endeavor. The contention comes from disagreeing with what is best for kids. Where we see a lot of success going on is when the board and superintendent build a team and have a strict delineation of duties," said Mark DeVoti, assistant executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards. A big part of CASB's work sounds similar to a marriage counselor - teaching board members communication skills, clarifying goals, and even acting as matchmaker to help to find a new superintendent.

Personalities and politics often are at the heart of disagreements.

In recent years, reform candidates and partisan philosophies have become more common, says Bruce Caughey, executive direct of Colorado Association of School Executives. CASE helps superintendents with professional advice, including team building, job hunts, and how to weather controversies and job losses.

"In general Colorado's system of local control with locally elected school boards is a good model. But it does sometimes create insurmountable hurdles where superintendents find themselves at an impasse," Caughey says. "What you get when a district goes through an election cycle or two, is a new board or board members who didn't hire you, and might have a very different perspective of direction a district should go."

Such changing of the guard, especially if done often, can be disruptive.

"School districts are large and complicated organisms to run. I don't think we should underestimate the power of continuity of leadership in helping the system work very well." Caughey says.

One recently publicized example of how elections can lead to the ousting of a superintendent, occurred this year in suburban Jefferson County School District R-1, the largest K-12 district in Colorado with 86,000 students.

Superintendent Cindy Stevenson, a nationally acclaimed administrator who had been in the post 12 years, resigned at a vocal and dramatic school board meeting in February, saying the board didn't respect or trust her. Stevenson had been named a "Leader to Learn From" by Education Week and was lauded for collaborative work with unions.

The breakup came after a slate of three conservative candidates were elected to the five-member board in November. Stevenson said in an interview, "The voters chose a different kind of board than I was used to. When there are philosophical disagreements, it's not good for the organization. It was very painful. I loved the work."

Since then, she has been hired by CASE to run its new leadership initiative.

Lesley Dahlkemper, on the Jeffco board for two years and who supported Stevenson, says that the key to a successful relationship is clearly drawn lines of responsibility. "The new board majority is struggling with that and wanted to micromanage the work of the district," she says.

Ken Witt, one of the new board members and the current school board president, did not return a call requesting an interview.

The Jeffco board is searching for a new superintendent, with help of Ray and Associates, Inc., an Iowa-based educational search firm. One of Ray's executives said at a community meeting that the process of hiring a new CEO can be healing for a split board. He said that he hoped the board and a new superintendent would "become a team of six," according to

Ron Cabrera, an assistant superintendent at Boulder Valley School District, ran into a change of board at his previous job as superintendent at Thompson School District in Loveland. Only one board member remained of those who had hired him. "When there is a change of the board by election, it changed the chemistry and the entire perceived vision of the district," Cabrera said. So he resigned.

Knowing one's responsibilities is at the heart of superintendent and board relations, says CASB's DeVoti, who has himself been a superintendent.

According to the CASB workbook for new board members, there are some clear divisions and responsibilities. The superintendent serves as chief advisor to the board on all matters having to do with the district and education, as well as serving as the administrator and ensuring that board policies are implemented. The board is the representative of the community and provides direction for district, mainly through policy making and oversight.

Trouble most often arises most when board members want to overstep authority and micromanage the day-to-day workings of the district, educators agree.

One of the most talked about examples of board chaos was in Falcon School District 49. Between 1997 and 2011, the board went through nine superintendents and interims and paid out more than a half million dollars to buy out contracts.

One of most publicized of the cases occurred in 2009, when Superintendent Grant Schmidt, who had been on the job about 10 months, was wrongfully accused publicly by the board of possible sexual harassment and financial irresponsibility. The board allegations were untrue.

Schmidt's lawyer found that there were no harassment complaints on file against him, even though the school board said that was the reason for placing him on administrative leave.

Falcon School Board President Tammy Harold, who was not a board member at the time, but who was a community education activist, watched it all unfold. "I don't know why they put it out there without proving it. But it was very damaging to his career."

Schmidt, who has a doctorate in education administration, says that the accusations have followed him in all his job searches. "The feedback I have had, is that the interviews and qualifications are great. But then they do a Google Search and all they see are those headlines. I wouldn't blame them if it were true. But it wasn't."

Eventually, the attorney for the district in wrote a letter in 2013 on his behalf for prospective employers. The letter, obtained by The Gazette, said the allegations regarding the financial matter had no merit and that no harassment allegations, charges, complaints or grievances had been filed.

D-49 attorney Brad Miller noted in the letter that the separation of employment "was largely driven by political factors and a difference in governing philosophy rather than the highly publicized allegations."

Schmidt is now a principal at Prairie Winds Elementary School in the Hanover School District.

Hanover board president Rik Noring said, "It was a long hiring process. We did our due diligence and moved on. It was a witch hunt. He is an amazing principal and we are lucky to have him."

The revolving door for superintendents at Falcon was solved when the district decided not to have a superintendent at all, Harold said. For three years it has used what it calls a management matrix system, thought to be the only one of its kind in Colorado. There are three chief officers who share the top spot. One is in charge of education, another business and the third, operations. "There's a consistency that continues even if there is a conflict or someone leaves," Harold explains.

Other techniques have worked, too. Deborah Hendrix, former board president at Harrison School District 2, explained how they put in place a so-called Coherent Governance model that numerous districts nationally and in Colorado have used to clarify responsibilities and help end conflict and confusing approaches to governing. It makes things much clearer for board members, she explained. "People often run for the board because of a single issue, for example to get rid of a teacher, and suddenly they are part of a governing team and don't know how to do it."

The idea of Coherent Governance is that the board doesn't micromanage the superintendent, but he has to prove that policy is being carried out.

"Too many boards want to be superintendent and that is the problem," Hendrix says. "They want to dictate day-to-day operations of the district."

She was on the board eight years and credits the teamwork with former Superintendent Mike Miles for getting the district off of academic probation and posting test scores at the state average.

"It's a lot harder than it sounds," she said. One board member was often contrarian. There was controversy when they got rid of non-performing teachers and put in place a pay-for-performance plan and evaluated principals and teachers well before it was state mandates.

Miles left to take a job at the Dallas Independent School District, which has 160,000 students and a $1.5 billion budget, but where students were performing below state averages. As was the case in Harrison, there have been complaints in Dallas that he is wrecking the district. The board approved principal evaluations and he has moved on to teacher evaluations.

It has been rocky. A consultant specializing in nonprofit governance has been brought in to team build, according to the Dallas Observer.

From afar, Hendrix says that the Harrison board and Miles had accomplished a lot because they focused on the students.

"In Dallas it looks like some are focused on adult issues, not the best interest of kids. I would ask them, or any other board that can't get along with each other and with the superintendent: Do you want to improve the lives of students or just talk the game?"

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