Top role

Search for new superintendent of Sheridan schools underway

Sheridan Superintendent Michael Clough makes a point during construction board hearing on June 27, 2012.

Sheridan, the small district southwest of Denver, will start accepting applications for a new superintendent next week.

After 10 years as superintendent of the small, urban district, Michael Clough will retire in June.

Looking back over his tenure at the head of the Sheridan School District, Clough said in a phone interview that he is most proud of having increased the state quality ratings for the district after five years of low performance.

“The number of sanctions are very taxing,” Clough said. “It’s a true weight that has been lifted off this district.”

The Sheridan district improved just enough in 2016 to earn a higher state quality rating that pushed it off the state’s watchlist just before it was about to hit the state’s limit for consecutive years of low performance. During their years under state scrutiny, Clough and the district challenged the Colorado Department of Education over their low ratings and the state’s method for calculating graduation rates.

Clough said the next superintendent will face more daunting challenges if state officials don’t change the way it funds Colorado’s schools. Clough has been an advocate for increased school funding, using the challenges faced by his district to drive home his message that the state needs to do more to support K-12 education.

The funding crisis, Clough said, “is beginning to hit, in my estimation, real serious proportions.”

The school board hired the firm Ray and Associates to help search for the district’s next leader.

The consultants have been hosting forums and launched a survey asking staff, parents, and community members what they would like to see in a new superintendent. Next week, board members will meet to analyze the results of the feedback and to finalize the job posting, including deciding on a salary range.

Clough had already retired in 2014. At the time, school board members created a new deal with him to keep him as district leader while allowing him to work fewer hours so he could start retirement benefits.

“I think we’ve accomplished quite a bit,” said Bernadette Saleh, current board president. “I think we have made great strides. I have only good things to say about Mr. Clough.”

out of sight

Out of town, on a Sunday morning, Sheridan’s school board approved a new superintendent contract

Sheridan school board members and Superintendent Michael Clough, right, at earlier meeting in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Sheridan School District)

The school board for the Sheridan district bordering southwest Denver voted on the incoming superintendent’s contract at a weekend meeting held in Colorado Springs, 65 miles away from community members who had objected to their choice on who should lead the district.

The board refused to release a copy of the draft contract they were considering before the Sunday morning meeting, citing attorney-client privilege. The district didn’t release the contract until more than 24 hours after the vote, even though the document became public under Colorado law at the time of the meeting.

Community members said they still haven’t seen the contract as of Monday afternoon. It has not been posted publicly by the district. Community members also said the way this weekend meeting was held was strange, but on par with what they already see as the district avoiding public input.

“We had some community members and parents wondering, even some teachers, that were wondering how much he would get paid, especially compared to Englewood schools’ superintendent,” said Indira Guzman, a mother of two district students and a community organizer for Sheridan Rising Together for Equity. “Our community has a very bitter taste after the last times they gave input. They feel it doesn’t matter what they say. They are not considered at all.”

The handling of the contract approval is the latest in a months-long controversial process for selecting a new superintendent.

Michael Clough is retiring this summer following 10 years in the role. Earlier this year, after identifying three finalists, the four members on the board butted heads on who they wanted to pick for the job. The board president filled the fifth board seat before the final vote. New board member Juanita Camacho served to break the tie and helped select Pat Sandos, a district administrator, as the new chief.

It was a blow to community members, parents, and some students, who, thinking the district needed big changes, wanted the board to select an outsider, a Denver administrator, for the job.

Veteran board members disagreed with the community and with the two newly elected board members, saying instead that the district is on the right track and that an internal candidate would keep up the momentum.

Some community members have said in public comment that they are organizing a board recall following the decision.

The signed contract (in full below) is a two-year agreement with a possibility for an additional one-year automatic extension, unless the board were to notify Sandos of a non-renewal by March 31, 2019. The contract gives Sandos a $160,000 annual salary — less than the $161,480 Clough was making before going to part-time status. The contract also entitles Sandos to $350 per month for driving expenses, and up to $120 per month for a cellphone plan.

The district posted the notice for the weekend meeting on Saturday morning, meeting minimum requirements under the law. The agenda didn’t include time for any public comment during the meeting.

The district noted in their announcement that the board’s regularly scheduled Tuesday meeting in Sheridan was cancelled, as it was instead held Sunday morning before the annual retreat when the board was going to talk about goals for the year.

Asked why the board decided to have the regular business meeting so far from its constituents, a district spokesman said it was a unanimous decision.

“One board member works six days a week,” said district spokesman Mark Stevens. “As a result, the board settled on a Sunday and agreed unanimously on June 10. Holding a business meeting and approving the contract on Sunday allows the board to cancel a Tuesday meeting.”

Stevens added, “the superintendent contract wasn’t ready until late in the week last week.”

The two board members who had voted against the appointment of Sandos as superintendent, Karla Najera and Daniel Stange, both were late to the meeting and missed the vote on the contract. But both had previously been in contact with the remaining board and said it was okay for the board to start without them, and said they did not have objections to the contract.

The three board members in attendance at the start of the meeting all voted in support of the contract, without discussion.

Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said he struggled with the district’s justification for denying the earlier release of the contract. Roberts said waiting until Monday was not timely, and said “they could have handled it better.”

Roberts also said that while the law does not specify where governing boards should meet, he said it is rare, but not unheard of, for some governing boards to meet while out of town. School boards often have retreats in Colorado Springs while already there for other annual conferences, for instance, and in some cases have held other business meetings there. One recent example was Jeffco Public Schools, which held one of several closed-door meetings in Colorado Springs before deciding to search for a new superintendent.

Roberts said there are simple and low-cost ways boards could improve transparency when they do meet outside of their jurisdictions.

“I just think this is a transparency effort they could make,” Roberts said. “You could have used Facebook Live to stream your meeting to make sure the people back in Sheridan could see it. They can take small steps to involve the public.”

Guzman added that concern from parents and community members over the contract is valid.

“It’s our tax money that is paying for this superintendent, and it’s about our kids’ future,” Guzman said. “We want to make sure we give our kids the best opportunities and he’s our leader to do that, so we want to make sure that our input is valued.”

Charter growth

As low-income families exit Denver, charter network KIPP is looking to follow

Caroline Hiskey, a preschool teacher at KIPP Northeast Elementary in Denver, reviews letters with the help of "Phonics Lion."

As gentrification continues to squeeze low-income families and push them out to the surrounding suburbs, the effect of a shifting school-age population continues to reverberate in Denver area schools.

The latest repercussion: One of the largest charter school networks in Denver is considering expanding into the suburbs outside of the city, in part to follow students who have left.

KIPP, a national charter network that runs five schools in Denver, plans to have a new five-year strategic plan by this summer which will include a roadmap for how the charter network will grow, as well as where.

That map will likely be dictated in large part by the latest enrollment trends in the metro area. Officials said that, in seeking a good fit for a KIPP school, they will consider where current KIPP students are living, whether the charter’s resources can cover the expansion, and whether the new district’s “vision” aligns with theirs.

“We believe there is need beyond what is going on in Denver,” said Kimberlee Sia, the CEO of KIPP Colorado.

KIPP, one of the largest charter networks nationally, is known for its strict model of student accountability, high discipline, and rigorous academics geared toward college preparation. In Denver, it operates five schools and serves more than 2,000 students, 71 percent of whom are from low-income families.

The latest state enrollment figures show that Denver Public Schools is losing students from low-income families, while other districts such as Sheridan, Adams 14, and Westminster that have traditionally served a high number of those students are now serving a higher concentration of them.

The KIPP schools in Denver Public Schools have still been growing in enrollment because the network continues to expand into more grade levels. But the percentage of students coming from low-income families is decreasing.

Even so, a large number of families that have fled Denver and its rising housing costs have been finding their way back to KIPP schools in Denver. According to the charter network’s data, nine percent of KIPP students are living outside of Denver in areas that include Aurora, Commerce City, Lakewood, Westminster, Bennett and more. Comparable figures are not available for previous years.

“It’s interesting to see their commitment,” Sia said.

One of those students is Martha Gonzalez’s 15-year-old son, Luis Gonzalez. Every day Gonzalez drives her son from her Thornton home to KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy.

Gonzalez said her son started attending a KIPP school in fifth grade, after his grades slipped and he began resisting going to the school he had enrolled in after a move. She said she quickly noticed a change at KIPP.

“He came home very surprised, talking about how he learned a lot of things,” Gonzalez said. “I know I made a good choice.”

Gonzales said she doesn’t work, in part because she drives about four hours a day to and from KIPP.

“I tried to move close to the school, but it’s too expensive,” Gonzalez said.

She said if KIPP opens a school closer to her, it might not happen before her son graduates. But she said, she knows it can benefit other families, including her sister-in-law’s children who also live in Thornton and attend KIPP in Denver.

Space has been an issue for charter school expansions, and KIPP may face a similar problem in the suburbs. Right now, all KIPP schools in Denver are located in space provided by the Denver school district.

“We know that we’re really fortunate here in DPS,” Sia said. “We know that is not the trend across the state, in other districts.”

Aurora Public Schools is one nearby district that, like Denver, has started providing buildings to select charter schools, although not as matter of a formal policy.

Last year, Superintendent Rico Munn reached out to the DSST charter network and, as part of an invitation to open in Aurora, offered to use bond money to pay for at least half of a new building for the charter school. The district also used a turnaround plan to allow charter network Rocky Mountain Prep to take over a struggling elementary school. The charter is moving into the district building. Both of those were, like KIPP, Denver-based charters expanding outside of the city for the first time.

Aurora, however, is also experiencing a sharp decline in student enrollment as their housing prices see a rise, too.

Sia said KIPP officials haven’t begun conversations with any district officials to even discuss if providing building space would be an option, but admitted, “That’s a really big deciding factor.”