The Jeffco Public Schools’ Board of Education is expecting to have a permanent replacement for outgoing superintendent Superintendent Cindy Stevenson by May, board President Ken Witt told Chalkbeat Colorado as part of a wide-ranging interview. 

The board is expected to outline its leadership transition plan to replace Stevenson at a special board meeting Tuesday evening.

Stevenson first announced her plans to retire after a new conservative slate of candidates swept the November election. She planned to stay through the remainder of the school year. But at a February board meeting, Stevenson announced that her last day would be Feb. 21 because her relationship with the new board majority impeded her work. The meeting, which was originally scheduled to discuss the budget, ended shortly after Stevenson announced her decision due to an unhappy crowd.

Since that meeting, tension has risen between the board’s majority, led by President Ken Witt, and certain portions of the community. Witt sat down with Chalkbeat Colorado for an interview last week to discuss his policy priorities for the state’s second largest school district — including what role performance pay might play in coming teachers contract negotiations — and, what, if any, steps need to be taken to repair a fractured education community.   

(The interview has been edited for clarity and for length.)

I just want to start off by asking you, how do you view your role as president of the board?

The board is the governing body for education in JeffCo. And I’m one of five board members. As president of the board, of course we have to try to set the agenda and keeping it on track, and that we’re paying attention to all of the demands around the district. But while it’s a position of leadership, it’s a position of consensus as well.

Talk to me about your leadership mentality and your vision as a leader.

You know, I’m very focused on academic achievement, specifically setting goals. Our approach to education is to — as we’ve discussed many times in public — is to, number one, set specific goals that result in improved academic achievement in Jefferson County. We did that unanimously as a board and we’ve gone with some very specific, smart goals, such as let the development of a change from 80 percent to 85 percent reading proficiency in the third grade. That’s a very specific goal but it’s a very important one. Children learn to read up to the third grade; past the third grade, they read to learn. If they haven’t established proficiency in the third grade reading, then they begin to fall behind progressively throughout the rest of their education.

We’ve also set goals — and they are public, they’re on the site, so you can easily verify them and get the exact details. We set goals in fourth grade math, in reducing the remediation rates. But [we have] specific, measurable goals that all five board members signed up to and said, “yeah, these are the right things to do, and they’re achievable.” That’s part of “SMART,” right — specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-limited. We’re going to focus on those goals, we’re going to ask the district what it takes to get there, and we’re going to empower the achievement of those goals.

And the way we do that — and my mental framework on how we get there — is number one, we focus on transparency and accountability. Making certain that we are honestly evaluating ourselves, that we are publishing and making certain that the public knows exactly where we are. That we are holding ourselves accountable for, you know, yes, we celebrate our successes but we also admit the areas where we need to work to bring our academic achievement further. So that’s the transparency and accountability part.

Local control. I want to make certain that we’re empowering teachers at the classroom level to be great teachers, giving them some flexibility in their instructional environment. Not thinking that one size fits all for every classroom in every school in every region across our district. Empowering local control at the principal level, giving them more budget flexibility, allowing them to get the right mix of teachers and counselors and get the personnel mix that empowers them to really achieve their goals, both their uniform improvement plan as well as their academic achievement goals. Giving them some power to get there. And of course focusing on local control at the district level as well. We’re not taking a statewide one-size-fits-all approach to education. I think that making certain that we are making good decisions for Jeffco and the expectations for education in Jefferson County.

And then the last thing that we will focus on is choice. Not every child needs the same environment, learns in the same way or even fits in the same social context. We need to make certain that we’ve empowered our parents to get their children into the public education alternatives that best fit each of their children. That means making certain that they have the ability to find a fit that lets their kids fully engage in education. Find that fit that allows them to realize the full benefit of public education and realize their full potential in public education.

What influences you — what is your zeitgeist for education policy? What books are you reading, what websites are you visiting, that inform your decisions.

It’s a long list, so I’m not going to call out websites. The bottom line is that we spend a whole lot of time reading educational materials from all sides, research, best practices, looking at what other districts are doing all over the nation, looking at models of success, considering models that have not been successful. Why? What are the issues there. So, we spend a lot of time.

You’re in the middle of a superintendent search. What kind of qualities are you going to be looking for in a superintendent?

You know, it’s, as you said, we are in the middle of a superintendent search. This process has been going on for some time now and we appreciate the understanding that we are at the point in the next week or so where we will finalize the selection of the firm that will help us find a national — we will do a national search for superintendent. The board has discussed some properties, such as independent thinker, creative leadership, the ability to build consensus, team-building — those are critical skills. Obviously strong educational understanding and knowledge. Strong leadership, strong team-building, strong development — the ability to develop an organization. I’d like to see some evidence of, “have you impacted education, turned education around? Can you show where you’ve significantly impacted educational outcomes?” Those are important characteristics. But it’s not all about what I want to see in a superintendent. We’ve asked for a community process, to hear from our community through the accountability committees at all of the schools, for instance. To search for what are the attributes of a superintendent, to let those ideas bubble to the top — let’s get a good road map of what makes a good leader in Jeffco.

And in the process —

Oh, I’m sorry, let me just finish that, because while we’re talking about it let’s talk about the process for a moment, right? We will finalize the search firm in the next month or so. I expect by the May timeframe we should have another superintendent in place. I can’t know that. But that is the goal. We’d like to be there by May.

That’s pretty fast.

We’ll drive towards that. This is a big school district. It’s my belief, it is my hope that we will attract a lot of interested talent.

When I hear that you might have someone in mind or in place by May, I’m led to believe that you might already have your eye on a few people.

So, your own Freudian slip, where you say that you’ve heard that I have someone in mind, which I did not say —

No no, I said, I’m led to believe…

And that is not the case.

OK. So for now, or between February 21st and May, are you going to have an interim superintendent or is the plan still to have all of the top deputies….

We’ll have to approve a transition plan as a board. And we’ll certainly focus on that in the next week or so. In the meantime, should Dr. Stevenson’s February 21 date come along and we don’t have a fleshed-out transition plan, those leadership team will directly report to the board until we have a leadership plan in place. Bear in mind though that we’ve had this superintendent search process in place for a while, this is not a new expectation for timeline. So if we’re able to keep it to a few weeks, I’m presently comfortable with having the leadership team report to the board for a few weeks. If it were to stretch out to months we would probably have to take a much harder look at that.

I think there might be some fears out there that there might be a micromanagement situation between you and those top deputies for those few weeks. Can you put some concerns to rest about that?

It’s unfounded. There’s some — I believe we have a great district, I think we have great leadership in this district, we have some very strong leaders, among our CXOs, CFOs, CAOs, CEAOs or AEO, I think we have strong leaders in this district and I think they’re doing a good job. This board will govern, but this board has no intention of trying to manage the district or its personnel.

Do you count Superintendent Stevenson in that?

Superintendent Stevenson has resigned. We’re moving forward.

But do you think she’s a quality superintendent?

You know, I respect Dr. Stevenson and as I said, when we came on board I very much looked forward to working with her. I have enjoyed working with her and now we’re going to move forward and we’re going to focus on the next superintendent.

You know, there’s this old adage that if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. And I’m curious, what specific policies in Jeffco do you think are either broken or are in need of a tune-up that you hope to work on in the coming months?

We’ve been stuck at 80 percent reading proficiency in the third grade for a very long time in Jeffco. We have celebrated the increase in graduation rates, but our remediation rates have to change. We need to focus on improved academic achievement and that’s what we’re going to do.

Any specific policies that you think might help change those proficiency rates?

I’m not thinking about it in a policy context; I’m thinking of it in terms of a goal and let the district tell us what it takes to get there.

Overall, I think that Jeffco is often revered as one of the better school districts in this state. What do you think makes it, what policies, what curriculum do you think specifically lends itself to that stature?

Well, I think — I talked a little bit about transparency earlier. I think that it’s important to focus on transparency and make certain that we are honestly evaluating ourselves. Our graduation rate is 115th out of 178 districts. Are we doing a good job in some areas? Absolutely. We have some nationally renowned schools. And I’m very proud of our accomplishments. But we have significant opportunity for achievement. It’s not okay with me that our third grade reading proficiency has not moved. It’s not okay with me that graduation rates are 115th out of 178 districts. I believe we do have some work to do.

There are concerns out there in the community and we saw it Saturday at the board meeting. And I’m asking this question half-flippantly, but what kind of assurances can you give your opponents, your detractors, that you’re not just going to blow up the entire school district?

I think I’ve laid out a fairly rational plan in terms of academic goals, the structure around that and how to get there. And we’re going to continue to drive precisely towards what we said we were going to drive towards in the campaign and after the election. Our focus is tightly on improved academic achievement and that’s what we’re going to continue to focus on.

Let’s talk about a little bit about Brad Miller. Could you lay out the timetable for how the board came to hire Brad and why it’s important for you to have your own attorney.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time rehashing Brad Miller. The district informed us that their attorney had left, had posted his resignation, not timely but only a few days before his departure. I indicated that we would need to do something to bring in another attorney, notified the board that I intended to make the motion to hire another attorney and gave them a couple of alternatives that I would encourage them to consider, one of whom was known to most of the members of the board, one of whom was known to many members of the board, but neither of whom were strangers to the district. I made that motion and we pressed forward. If the board didn’t want to hire, that was fine, but if they did that was great. It was timely, it was needed and we moved forward. It is not unusual for a governing body to expect to have counsel on matters such as hiring a superintendent for a $1.1 billion district. Focusing on policy and governance in a district this size with new board members — of course it requires good counsel.

If you could do the process over again, would you do it the exact same way or would you —

If I could do the process over again, we would have been timely notified of the previous counsel’s departure so we could have dealt with it on a slower timetable.

Let’s talk a little bit about teacher contract negotiations. They’re starting in March, I believe; they’re going to be public. What are your intentions around that? What do you hope to get out of it for the district? What are the board’s intentions around the process?

I can’t speak for the board, I can only speak for myself, and I’m not going to discuss negotiations before they occur.

Talk to me a little bit about local control. Obviously we’re approaching a point in time for this state where maybe for the first time ever there is a serious matrix of laws from teacher effectiveness to school accountability, new standards that are all coming together at once. And I’m curious — we’ve seen what happened in Dougco with the bill to get out of state testing — what are some of your thoughts around that?

That’s a very broad question.

It is.

I guess I would call out of a couple of things. Obviously we do have a teacher effectiveness requirements that are new. We have indicated that we’re going to seek a 13-38 committee to look at those evaluations and that the board is going to make certain that we have people who want to be involved in that process involved in that process. And I’m anxious to see some good result from that.

We have, many of us on the board have made statements, both in the campaign as well as recently from the board that we are going to focus on a  performance component to compensation and of course evaluation is a key component of that. And so I think it’s very important that we do the right things there.

I find it surprising and disappointing that the CEA has, after saying they condoned and encouraged Senate Bill 191, filed suit to block its implementation to force principals to take teachers that they don’t feel are appropriate for their schools.

We’re going to make certain that performance is a component of compensation. I am going to make certain that performance is a component of compensation, in my dialogue and in my influence on the board. What the board does will depend on what the board votes.

One last question about teacher contracts. It’s my understanding that the previous board, the one you were not a part of, promised or indicated that teachers should see raises by 2015. Do you have any indication that that may come to fruition?

I think compensation is an element of negotiations that I’m certainly not going to discuss prior to negotiations. But my position continues to be that there will be a performance component to compensation.

Talk to me about the role of charter schools in a district like Jefferson County and what you see their role being and how you might want to change any sort of policies regarding charter schools.

So I don’t tend to focus on charter; I tend to focus on choice. We seated a choice committee and have it report to the board to specifically look at demand across the district for educational alternatives, for all educational alternatives. Neighborhood schools, programs within neighborhood schools such as [International Baccalaureate], special education, gifted and talented, [science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)], charter schools with core curriculum, classical curriculum, Montessori, whatever those alternatives are. Looking at what are the demands, what is the interest in our option, in our charter and in our neighborhood school types. I’d also like to have us look at schools of innovation, the innovation status in the state — Jeffco has not leveraged innovation status as far as many school districts have. I think we need to broaden the scope of our thinking in choice to make certain that parents are able to find the right fit for every student. And a charter is not the answer; it is a component, btu there are many answers.

I’ll tell you one thing I am focused on on a personal level is making certain that a child is worth the same educational resources regardless of which school they go to.

Private Catholic schools or Christian schools? Vouchers?

I’m elected to a public school board and I’m focused on public education.

You know, getting back to Saturday, we obviously heard chants for recalls, we heard teachers, parents say, there was no respect there. What do you say to those critics?

Well, having read the copy of the email that was sent to the teachers union personnel to attend that meeting and disrupt, I find it organized outcry to be not particularly informative.

While the population at that meeting on Saturday was not representative of all of Jeffco, however, I have talked to parents and principals who are not a part of the teachers union and they are, there are some concerns. What are you going to be doing — if you are going — to extend an olive branch to bring more people in to your circle of trust?

My circle of trust is pretty broad. We’re trying to include the community, we’re trying to include the public, I’m sitting here talking with you right now, Nic.

I appreciate that.

So I think the answer is I think we are going to make clear, as I have already laid out for you, exactly how we’re going to drive academic achievement improvements in Jeffco. That we’re going to focus on transparency and accountability, that we’re going to focus on local control, we’re going to focus on school choice to drive specific, measurable goals of academic achievement. That’s what we’re about, that’s what we’re focused on.

Let’s talk a little bit about the achievement gap and academic growth. One of the things that we do know about Jeffco is that there’s an achievement gap, we do know that there is a slower growth among [free and reduced-price lunch] students compared to predominantly white, middle- and upper-class students. And I’m curious — what kind of policies or changes do you want to see around that area of academic achievement?

I want to make certain that we are focusing on our academic achievement goals for all parts. And we do have some gaps that we’ve got to focus on and address. We have average ACT scores of 21.2 in Jefferson County but for our Hispanic community I think it’s 18. That’s not even quite at the bar for admission to [the University of Colorado] or [Colorado State University]. So we do have some work to do and I don’t pretend to have all the answers there but I will certainly pay attention and listen to those who do believe they have good plans to close those gaps and we will be focusing on it.

Talk to me a little bit about your relationship with Lesley [Dahlkemper] and Jill [Fellman, who are the two minority board members who have historically supported the policies of outgoing superintendent Stevenson].

It’s a board of five. Boards won’t always agree. However at the end of the day, we try to have dialogue, get the issues fully out. We have worked very hard with this board to increase transparency and to increase dialogue. Let me give you a specific example. The prior board had a consent agenda that required three members to pull anything off for discussion. How do you interpret the intent of such a policy or such an agenda? It keeps the minority from being able to discuss issues that they don’t agree with. The first action this board took when we were seated was to eliminate that locked-out consent agenda so that any board member could pull off an item from the consent agenda and discuss it.

One of the things we saw in Denver was that obviously they had a very contentious ideological split until recently. And one of the things that observers said over and over and over again was that that split, that pettiness of political infighting really prevented the district from moving forward. How are you going to ensure that does not happen in Jefffco as board president?

We have and we will continue to take the high road in addressing the issues, allowing discussion, making decisions and moving forward. I assure you that we will not be parties dredging up old issues repeatedly; we will not be trying to incite disagreements among the board. You used the word pettiness; one should be very careful in public governance not to be in that position and we will not be in that position.

One of the concerns that I’ve heard from various people in my [reporting] is that you and the majority are having private meetings outside of Lesley and Jill. Is that true?

It is simply the case that we have notified the board, typically in the prior meeting, to attend to ideas; we’ve tried to expose them days ahead of time. We’ve put out plans, and given time for consideration. We’ve gone about as far as we can, as is possible, in exposing thoughts and ideas as early as possible for consideration and we will continue to do so.

Can you give me an example?

Choice committee. I sent out a choice committee charter and I brought it up in the meeting and I said, no one has had a chance to consider this yet, I’m not going to ask for a vote at this meeting, but here it is, we’ll vote on it at the next meeting. The 13-38 committee, the teacher evaluation committee. I said, I’d like to change the way we seat this committee so that we have people actually want to be on it submitting applications to be a part of it and then the board will choose, but we’re not going to vote on that tonight. I’d like to vote on it at the next meeting so everyone can give it due consideration.

What is it that we haven’t covered that you want the folks of Jeffco to know?

I’ll just wrap up with where I started because this is the most important thing and that is, we are focused on the future. We have specific intent to improve academic achievement in Jefferson County. We’re going to do that by setting measurable goals and actually measuring ourselves against them and being transparent in that process. We’re going to focus on empowering achievement of academic improvements in this district by focusing on transparency and accountability, by focusing on choice programs and school choice, by focusing on local control at each level. And we are going to pay very careful attention to proper governance, we’re going to make certain that we don’t have or we don’t allow it to persist conflicts of interest or cronyism in the district but that we’re in fact running effectively and efficiently and we’re not beholden to different places.

What’s the one thing you’ve learned in the past three months since being sworn in that you didn’t know before you were elected regarding Jeffco?

Regarding Jeffco?

Yeah.

Hm, that’s an interesting question. There are many things that we’ve learned and there will continue to be many things.

Give me one.

My previous position in life is continuous learning. You have to be learning every day, you have to be studying, you have to be paying attention to what is needed, and trying to find, what are the demands, what are the needs, what are the gaps, and constantly developing plans to close them. And you never get there. In Jeffco, there’s an incredibly diverse set of demands and there’s no way for me, on a school board, to know what a lot of those are. To understand the differences between the mountain communities and the plains communities. To understand the differences between areas that are focused on IB, STEM, special education, looking at the demands and functions of different schools. There’s a lot of complexity to education in a district of this size and I would never presume to say that I understand it all or thought I understood it all going in. I will continue to learn and I will continue to focus on finding the right answers.

I have to ask one more time, what kind of assurances can you give those community members who are terrified of you?

Assurances concerning what?

Everything from teachers contracts to opting out to privacy concerns — there’s a litany of concerns.

I guess it would be nice where the false information wasn’t driving people to be terrified of issues that are not real…The constant misinformation is disappointing and it’s causing a lot of fear and concern out there that shouldn’t be out there. I recently heard a statement that teachers are afraid we’re focused on reducing their compensation, and I heard this from multiple levels. And yet I’ve never heard a single board discussion about reducing the compensation for teachers. In fact, the things that I have heard from this board, myself included, are that we want the compensation to be designed to increase new teacher compensation and that we want to talk about how to increase teacher compensation for highly effective teachers. There’s no discussion of reducing compensation. Those fears are fomented unfortunately by people who have an agenda and the best thing we can all do, yourself included, Nic, is to be accurate in our reporting.

Well, I’m going to do my best. I appreciate your time.

Absolutely.