New Beginnings

New Jeffco superintendent emphasizes community engagement, visibility during first day tour

PHOTO: Jack Maher
Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMinimee speaks to students at Jefferson High School on the first day of school.

Jefferson High School principal Michael James started the school year by challenging his new freshmen to beat the upperclassmen to a cheering contest.

The freshman lost, but, James consoled them that over time their voices would become louder and their spirit stronger.

“I know it’s a challenge to have your first day of school in a new building,”James said.

Jefferson High School is the smallest high school in Jefferson County, with about 550 students. It is this small, close-knit culture that makes the school so special, James said.

“I am one of those principals that is going to push you in many different areas, and one of those areas is involvement,” he said. “I want you to raise your leadership. I want every one of you to be able to say ‘I am a student leader.'”

These freshmen weren’t just meeting new students and staff. Today, they met Jefferson County Public Schools’ new superintendent, Dan McMinimee.

There’s a lot at stake for the new district leader, a former Douglas County Public Schools assistant superintendent.

McMinimee came into leadership during a tumultuous time for the district. Tensions between the board and parents, teachers and community members reached an all-time high when Cindy Stevenson bowed out four months before her retirement, after 12 years as superintendent. Stevenson left, citing distrust between her and the board’s new conservative majority, leading residents demanding a recall of its board members.

His road to appointment wasn’t an easy one. After a split 3-2 vote from the board in May, community members raised concerns about his credentials and whether McMinimee is worth his $280,000 salary.

His message to the students echoed his own charge as district leader — they should become actively involved in their schools.

“You make the decision, today, whether you’re going to be engaged in the Jefferson community,” he said to the 200-some students, teachers and staff gathered in the school’s auditorium.

A principal for seven years, McMinimee said visibility and community input in decision-making are two of his top priorities this school year.

When it comes to getting parents and students involved in decision-making at the school level, McMinimee said empowering principals will be the most important thing.

“I think one of the big things that I do really well is high visibility and high access,” he said. “I think that’s important for people  — especially in a district the size of Jefferson County — to feel like they have access to the superintendent and board of education.”

McMinimee spent Jeffco’s first day back visiting seven schools, including Jefferson High and Edgewater Elementary, which have two of the district’s highest number of students on free-and-reduced lunch.

“If there are challenging circumstances, we need to provide the resources to make sure that building principals get an opportunity to do the things they need to do with their staff to make it a great place for kids,” he said. “Authentic engagement really happens at individual schools,”

After the school assembly, James and McMinimee met to talk about the school’s goals.

“We want to raise the bar for every student,” James said. “We want students to realize that a diploma is the most important gift to receive.”

James said he hopes McMinimee and Jefferson High students and staff can work toward those same goals throughout the school year.

McMinimee said one of his toughest challenges this year will be acclimating to Jeffco’s climate and culture.

“Dr. Stevenson was here for 12 years, so she leaves a tremendous legacy of knowledge around what’s going on in schools and who’s doing what,” McMinimee said. “She probably hired most, if not all, the principals in these schools. I think that familiarity is a big challenge to overcome.”

He said, from there, he hopes the board, teachers and parents can come together to develop common goals.

The board will meet later this month, and McMinimee said he is looking forward to getting to know its members and the community in the coming months.

“I haven’t had an opportunity to meet with them at all, except for my interviews way back in May,” he said. “I hope what comes of that meeting is a sense that we have some great goals that we’re going to be working toward, and we’re going to work together moving forward.”

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.