Big decision

One year after recall election, Jefferson County school board weighing superintendent’s fate

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Dan McMinimee met with the Jeffco community in 2014 before being hired as Superintendent.

The Jefferson County school board has begun discussions to decide the fate of Superintendent Dan McMinimee, one year after voters ousted the conservative board members who hired him.

McMinimee was a controversial pick when he was hired in summer 2014. He had no experience as superintendent, and had previously been an assistant superintendent at the Douglas County School District — a district that had ended negotiations with its teachers union.

The recall campaign at times focused on McMinimee and his salary package. But when the recall was successful, new board members said they would give the superintendent a chance.

McMinimee’s $220,000 contract expires June 30 and board members must decide if they will renegotiate a contract with him or launch a search for a new superintendent.

If the board decides to retain McMinimee, they must notify him in writing by March 31 under the terms of his contract.

Jeffco school board members held an executive session last week during a conference in Colorado Springs in which they started discussions on the superintendent’s contract, a district spokeswoman said. The board is scheduled to go into executive session again Thursday to continue the discussion.

“You don’t wait until the contract expires,” Ron Mitchell, the Jeffco school board president, told Chalkbeat. “Should the board be thinking we want to go in another direction, that requires a fair amount of prior planning. That’s the rationale for the timing — the only reason we’re beginning those discussions.”

If the board wanted to part ways with McMinimee before his contract expires without attempting to fire him with cause, the district would need to pay him the amount of one year’s base salary, according to his contract. If the superintendent wants to terminate the contract, he would have to give the board six months notice or be charged for damages.

McMinimee said Wednesday that he would like to stay in the district and hopes the board can make a decision soon. He said he expects a chance at Thursday’s meeting to address any board concerns.

“We have a significant amount of work we have to get started in January,” McMinimee said. “This needs to get resolved so we can focus on that.”

After the start of the new year, district staff will be working on drafting next year’s budget and finding ways to cut back on projects that would have been funded if the district’s bond and mill levy requests had prevailed at the ballot box last month.

In the last few months, board members and McMinimee have discussed his performance during open meetings as part of his evaluation process.

In September, the board finalized one evaluation used to determine if McMinimee was eligible for up to $40,000 in bonuses tied to district goals. The evaluation, required by his contract, determined that he helped the district reach more than half of the goals, including raising scores on state tests and on the ACT test, and creating school accountability teams at every district school.

McMinimee received the lowest scores of partially effective on three out of the 12 goals including one related to creating a new charter school application process, and for mixed results increasing the number of third-graders meeting or exceeding expectations in reading.

Based on the review, McMinimee received $20,000 in performance pay.

After that evaluation, the board started the work of setting the superintendent goals for next year. McMinimee presented a draft of his suggested goals at a meeting two weeks ago.

During that discussion, board members pushed back on the draft, suggesting that some of the goals McMinimee had set should be expectations of his job, not additional goals for bonuses. They asked for more goals that can be tied to reliable data.

Under McMinimee’s tenure, the second largest school district in Colorado has made changes to a group of schools on the district’s more impoverished eastern boundary, including expanding Alameda and Jefferson high schools into seventh through 12th grade campuses.

The district has also moved toward giving principals more autonomy. That included a switch to a student-based budget system that provides schools a set amount of money per student and more flexibility in spending. The recent defeat of the district’s bond and mill levy requests mean some plans for new schools and for renovations will be put on hold.

“I’m thankful the board gave me an opportunity to continue and work on some of the initiatives we were already doing — things like the Jeffco 2020 Vision,” McMinimee said, referring to the district’s goals and strategic plan, which predates last year’s election.

“I’m very proud of the work that my staff has done,” he said. “I don’t know of many people that would have held in there with some of the things that have happened. And I’m referring to my cabinet. I’m very proud we have not wavered.”

Achievement School District

Tennessee’s turnaround district gets new leadership team for a new chapter

PHOTO: TN.gov
Malika Anderson became superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District in 2016 under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is bringing in some new blood to lead its turnaround district after cutting its workforce almost in half and repositioning the model as an intervention of last resort for the state’s chronically struggling schools.

While Malika Anderson remains as superintendent of the Achievement School District, she’ll have two lieutenants who are new to the ASD’s mostly charter-based turnaround district, as well as two others who have been part of the work in the years since its 2011 launch.

The hires stand in contrast to the original ASD leadership team, which was heavy with education reformers who came from outside of Tennessee or Memphis. And that’s intentional, Anderson said Friday as she announced the new lineup with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“It is critical in this phase of the ASD that we are learning from the past … and have leaders who are deeply experienced in Tennessee,” Anderson said.

New to her inner circle as of Aug. 1 are:

Verna Ruffin
Chief academic officer

PHOTO: Submitted
Verna Ruffin

Duties: She’ll assume oversight of the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by former executive director Tim Ware, who did not reapply. She’ll also promote collaboration across Achievement Schools and the ASD’s charter schools.

Last job: Superintendent of Jackson-Madison County School District since 2013

Her story: More than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of secondary curriculum, assistant superintendent and superintendent in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. At Jackson-Madison County, Ruffin oversaw a diverse student body and implemented a K-3 literacy initiative to promote more rigorous standards.

Farae Wolfe
Executive director of operations

Duties: Human resources, technology and operations

Current job: Program director for the Community Youth Career Development Center in Cleveland, Miss.

Her story: Wolfe has been city manager and human resources director for Cleveland, Miss., where she led a health and wellness initiative that decreased employee absenteeism due to minor illness by 20 percent. Her work experience in education includes overseeing parent and community relations for a Mississippi school district, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Leaders continuing to work with the state turnaround team are:

Lisa Settle
Chief performance officer

PHOTO: Achievement Schools
Lisa Settle

Duties: She’ll oversee federal and state compliance for charter operators and direct-run schools.

Last job: Chief of schools for the direct-run Achievement Schools since June 2015

Her story: Settle was co-founder and principal of Cornerstone Prep-Lester Campus, the first charter school approved by the ASD in Memphis. She also has experience in writing and reviewing curriculum in her work with the state’s recent Standards Review Committee.

Bobby White
Executive director of external affairs

PHOTO: ASD
Bobby White

Duties: He’ll continue his work to bolster the ASD’s community relations, which was fractured by the state’s takeover of neighborhood schools in Memphis when he came aboard in April 2016.

Last job: ASD chief of external affairs

His story: A Memphis native, White previously served as chief of staff and senior adviser for Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton, as well as a district director for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

A new team for a new era

The restructuring of the ASD and its leadership team comes after state officials decided to merge the ASD with support staff for its Achievement Schools. All 59 employees were invited in May to reapply for 30 jobs, some of which are still being filled.

The downsizing was necessary as the state ran out of money from the federal Race to the Top grant that jump-started the turnaround district in 2011 and has sustained most of its work while growing to 33 schools at its peak.

While the changes signal a new era for the state-run district, both McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have said they’re committed to keeping the ASD as Tennessee’s most intensive intervention when local and collaborative turnaround efforts fail, even as the initiative has had a mostly lackluster performance.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently,” McQueen said Friday, “and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan …”

In the next phase, school takeovers will not be as abrupt as the first ones that happened in Memphis in 2012, prompting angry protests from teachers and parents and outcry from local officials. Local districts will have three years to use their own turnaround methods before schools can be considered for takeover.

It’s uncertain where the ASD will expand next, but state officials have told Hamilton County leaders that it’s one of several options on the table for five low-performing schools in Chattanooga.

promoting choice

Betsy DeVos defends vouchers and slams AFT in her speech to conservatives

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rallied a conservative crowd in Denver on Thursday, criticizing teachers unions and local protesters and defending private-school vouchers as a way to help disadvantaged students.

“Our opponents, the defenders of the status quo, only protest those capable of implementing real change,” DeVos told members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential conservative group that helps shape legislative policy across the country. “You represent real change.”

DeVos delivered the keynote speech at the ALEC meeting, where she reiterated her support for local control of schools and school choice. Citing the conservative former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she said education should be about individual students and families, not school systems.

“Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on society. But, ‘who is society?’” DeVos asked, quoting Thatcher. “‘There is no such thing!’”

The American Federation of Teachers, she said, has exactly the opposite idea.

“Parents have seen that defenders of the status quo don’t have their kids’ interests at heart,” she said.

AFT President Randi Weingarten threw punches of her own Thursday, calling private school vouchers “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation” in a Washington, D.C. speech.

DeVos highlighted states that have introduced vouchers or new school-choice programs including North Carolina, Kentucky and Arizona. Indiana — home to the nation’s largest voucher program — also won praise.

Data from existing voucher programs may have sparked the one critical question DeVos faced, during a brief sit-down after her speech. Legislators want to know how to respond to complaints that voucher programs only help wealthy families, the moderator, an Arizona lawmaker, told DeVos.

In Indiana, for instance, vouchers are increasingly popular in wealthy school districts and among families whose students had not previously attended public school.

“I just dismiss that as a patently false argument,” DeVos said. “Wealthy people already have choice. They’re making choices every day, every year, by moving somewhere where they determine the schools are right for their children or by paying tuition if they haven’t moved somewhere.”

Earlier this year, DeVos criticized Denver as not offering enough school choice because Colorado does not have private school vouchers. Still, presenters at the conference Thursday introduced Denver to ALEC members — conservative legislators, business leaders and lobbyists — as “living proof” that charter schools and competition work.

A local Denver school board candidate, Tay Anderson, and state union leaders held a protest Wednesday ahead of DeVos’s speech. Attendees said they were concerned that ALEC’s efforts, and DeVos’s focus on vouchers and school choice, would hurt public schools.

DeVos didn’t make mention of Denver or Colorado in her speech Thursday, but she briefly referenced the protest.

“I consider the excitement a badge of honor, and so should you,” she said.