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Harrison School District 2, the Pikes Peak region’s most socio-economically diverse school district primarily serving southeast Colorado Springs, is a big winner in Tuesday’s election. (The Gazette file)

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The turbulence Harrison School District 2 encountered in the spring when its superintendent abruptly left appears to be subsiding, helped by a huge vote of confidence from the community.

District officials have been able to turn their attention from day-to-day operations to starting projects funded by a $180 million bond issue approved by 59 percent of voters last month.

Among improvements on the horizon are: repairing deteriorating school buildings; constructing a replacement building for Carmel Middle School; converting Soaring Eagles and Sand Creek International elementary schools to K-8 campuses; and improving safety, security, technology and ADA compliance at every school.

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“The community gave us a loud vote of support, and every kid will see the results of the bond passing,” said Wendy Birhanzel, one of two chief operating officers the five-member board appointed after former Superintendent Andre Spencer quit with no public explanation in May just a few weeks before graduation.

“It was a big pass for us in our community,” Birhanzel said.

Classrooms will be upgraded with new equipment, desks, and technology. The additions to create two K-8 schools will accommodate enrollment growth.

Tax increases have been a tough sell in D-2, the Pikes Peak region’s most socio-economically diverse district, in which roughly three-fourths of students are low income and minorities, according to state education data.

Before November’s victory, the last time D-2 voters passed a bond measure was in 2001.

A combination of factors led to this year’s success, said Board President Steve Seibert.

In addition to volunteers knocking on the doors of thousands of residents, 17,166 of whom cast a ballot in the midterm election, Seibert pinpoints the message as being what really persuaded voters.

“It was very clearly laid out as to what the bond was for — improvement in the schools that directly affect the kids,” he said. “We had a concise plan and have a citizens oversight committee. It was not a blank check.”

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What also helped was Opportunity Harrison, a committee that raised $315,245, according to campaign finance reports, to promote the initiative. Of that, $42,300 was donated from the Legacy Institute, a Colorado Springs organization that supports education and community development.

Construction contractors have been selected, and the district is working with architects to develop plans for major renovations at all schools, Seibert said. And the oversight committee is forming.

District leaders also are considering hiring an owner’s representative to track spending.

“So anybody can look at invoices and what’s been billed and paid,” Seibert said, “for added transparency.”

Smaller projects, such as repaving parking lots, updating boilers and installing new roofs, will be done “very quickly,” he said, while larger jobs, such as a new Carmel Middle School, will take years.

“The vote shows a tremendous optimism and movement for the district,” Seibert said. “For that size of a bond, it shows the community is engaged and in support of the district.”

No search for new superintendent

But there are issues yet to be resolved. Another board member has left. Treasurer Josh Hitchcock accepted a new job out of the area, and the board announced the vacancy at its Nov. 15 meeting. The board replaced another departing member in June.

A search for a new superintendent has not yet begun. Birhanzel and John Rogerson are splitting the top position as co-chief operating officers, the board decided in June, with Birhanzel in charge of elementary schools and Rogerson overseeing secondary schools.

The setup is working well, Birhanzel said, because “it allows us to really provide support to schools and departments because we have two people leading the charge. There’s more manpower to go around, we can bounce ideas off each other and help each other navigate the waters.”

Both were working in the district when they were promoted. Birhanzel was the curriculum, instruction and assessment officer, and Rogerson had been principal of Fox Meadow Middle School.

“We knew areas to address to improve things for students and staff or the community,” she said, “and were able to tackle those right away.”

Seibert said staff recommended that the board wait to find someone to replace Spencer, who took a job as the Queens borough executive superintendent in New York City Public Schools, until the normal hiring season in the spring.

Members have discussed departing from the traditional leadership structure of a superintendent at the top with assistant superintendents, Seibert said. But board policy is to have “a single point of contact,” he said, so an alternative governance structure would “take a major transition,” he said.

Committee will study pay structure

High teacher turnover has been a problem since a pay-for-performance compensation system was put into place in 2010.

The unique idea from former D-2 Superintendent Mike Miles became a model for the state’s Education Department in developing new performance standards that are now in effect for all public school districts statewide.

Under the model, instead of being paid by the number of years served and education level attained, teachers, principals and other staff, including the superintendent, earn higher pay for meeting effectiveness benchmarks.

Called Effectiveness and Results, the program bases half of teachers’ performance on how well students perform on district and state assessments. the other half is based on day-to-day-instruction, planning and classroom management.

But the system hasn’t changed since it began, and some believe it is harming the district.

“It was a very innovative pay system when it was introduced,” Seibert said. “But it didn’t really evolve the way it was intended.”

One reason is that Miles left the district not long after instituting it with the goal of boosting student achievement.

“When it was put in place, it was rather lucrative — if you were a high-performing teacher, you could get paid extremely well,” Seibert said.

But now, other school districts in the region have increased teacher pay to the point that D-2’s scale is “not as competitive as it used to be,” he said. “It didn’t produce the results and almost became a negative in a lot of circumstances.”

D-2 has had the highest teacher turnover rate in the Pikes Peak region for years, most recently at 27 percent.

After Spencer’s departure, the numbers rose even higher. More than 130 teachers indicated they were quitting before graduation, along with five principals and numerous other employees, some longtime staffers.

To help retention, for the first time in years teachers and other staff received a 3 percent raise this school year.

And a committee was formed this semester to evaluate whether the system is working.

“This is our time to reflect on the goals — recruit effective teachers, retain effective teachers and increase student achievement,” Birhanzel said. “Is our data telling us we’re doing those things? Is this system helping? If it is, how do we make it better? If not, what do we change, tweak and improve to meet our overall goals?”

Annual staff adoption of an Agreement of Trust and Understanding, which covers compensation, was at a 61 percent approval rate in 2016, the lowest in a decade. The approval rating fell further in 2017 to 50 percent, but increased to 80 percent this year.

“The atmosphere is 180 degrees different than it has been,” Seibert said. “The culture and climate is absolutely positive right now.”

Part of that, he believes, can be attributed to the success of the bond measure.

“Our facilities are in an embarrassing state of disrepair,” he said. “Just the thought of every school getting something new is exciting.”

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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