Stevenson tenure ends early on acrimonious note

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'I cannot lead and manage with this board,' she says

By Daniel Laverty

Jeffco Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson announced Saturday that she will leave the district at the end of the month, ending her 12-year tenure amid friction with the new conservative majority on the school board.

“I cannot lead and manage because I am not trusted or respected by this Board of Education,” Stevenson said. “I approached the board about this, and said I can’t make decisions and I cannot lead if they do not trust or respect me.”

Stevenson said her last day would be Feb. 21. She had originally planned to work through this school year, having announced plans to retire shortly after three new members were elected to the board last November.

A fiery meeting cut short

A school board meeting scheduled Saturday morning at the district’s headquarters to discuss the 2014-15 budget with staff turned controversial when board President Ken Witt requested an additional item be put on the agenda to discuss personnel matters related to Stevenson.

Witt started the meeting by inviting Stevenson to give a statement.

“It was my initiation,” Stevenson said of her early exit. “We need to do something so the district can move forward. If I can’t lead and if I can’t manage, I don’t serve you well.”

The audience of more than 250 people booed.

“Let’s be really clear,” said board member Lesley Dahlkemper. “This is about the three-member board majority. This majority board has hired a board attorney behind closed doors … and is trying to push out a nationally recognized leader in education. How is this good for children?

“This district is moving in the wrong direction with this decision,” Dahlkemper said.

“I apologize on behalf of this board,” board member Jill Fellman said.

After Stevenson’s statement, Witt tried to move into budget discussions. That’s when the crowd erupted.

“This board’s a piece of crap,” one man shouted.

“You’ve got a board of bullies and liars,” another yelled.

As the crowd grew unruly, Witt announced the board would take a 10-minute recess, which elicited even louder jeers from the audience.

After a few minutes, Witt returned to the dais.

“Security has requested that we adjourn the meeting,” Witt said.

The audience started chanting “Recall!” as Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk left the meeting room.

‘Change is difficult’

After working for Jeffco Schools for more than 40 years, Stevenson said, she had not imagined that her tenure as the district’s superintendent would end the way it has.

“I would like to have worked through next year,” Stevenson said after the meeting. “I would have liked to have known … that we were going to have the next greatest superintendent in America that was going to take Jeffco to a great place.”

Stevenson, Dahlkemper and Fellman stayed after the meeting to talk to parents and teachers.

“I knew in November this board would want their own superintendent, so I sped up the process,” Stevenson said.

Williams returned to the room at one point.

“Jeffco has done things the same (way) for many years, and I think change is difficult for many people,” Williams said.

“I’m hoping that the crowd will be able to control themselves,” Williams said of future meetings, “(and) understand this is a decision Cindy Stevenson made. They need to have respect so that we can continue to do good work.”

Dahlkemper was upset about the lack of communication on the school board.

“We don’t have the proper conversations about the big issues,” Dahlkemper said. “To have (250) people show up to a board meeting at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning sends a message that the community doesn’t think it’s OK. What we really needed to talk about today was the budget and how we’re going to align resources to educate kids.”

A contentious relationship

Stevenson announced her retirement Nov. 7, two days after Witt, Williams and Newkirk were elected to the five-member board. Before Saturday’s announcement, Stevenson’s last day had been slated for June 30.

“It’s not good for a district when you don’t have trust and respect,” Stevenson said. “I decided it was probably time to go (this month).”

“Trust is a two-way street,” Witt said after the meeting. “Dr. Stevenson resigned the day after the election. She announced her new position (last week) and, the day after that, approached the board and asked for an early release from her contract. We worked with her and allowed her to do that.”

The Colorado Association of School Executives announced last week that Stevenson had accepted a director position with CASE and will start in the summer.

“Stevenson has accepted another position,” Williams said. “It only makes sense that she would want to leave early.”

During their three months on the board, Witt, Newkirk and Williams have voiced their disapproval of some of the superintendent’s actions. The new board members felt Stevenson misled them about the STEM program expansion to sixth-grade at Deer Creek Middle School and had not informed them in a timely way about the retirement of the district’s attorney, Allen Taggart.

Looking ahead

Witt said there is no plan to hire an interim superintendent and that key district personnel will report to the board after Stevenson’s exit.

Those members include Marcia Anker, chief school effectiveness officer; Heather Beck, chief academic officer; Lorrie Gillis, chief financial officer; and Steve Bell, the district’s chief operating officer.

Witt said Stevenson’s early exit will not affect the plan and timeline for hiring a new superintendent.

Rumors were rampant

Rumors of Stevenson’s early exit began swirling in the community early last week after Witt asked district staff to inform the school board of the superintendent succession plan at a study session on Wednesday.

At the board’s regular meeting Thursday, Witt requested an executive session at Saturday’s meeting to discuss matters about Stevenson. Dahlkemper refused to agree.

“We will add the agenda item and vote on it appropriately,” Witt said Thursday.

Showing support

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the teachers union, alerted parents and teachers in a Friday night Facebook post, urging community members to attend the meeting.

As a result of Dallman’s post, more than 250 teachers and parents wore black and held signs during the meeting in support of Stevenson.

Supporters passed out stickers that stated, “We support Cindy!” Audience members waved signs that read, “We love you, Cindy” and “Transparency matters.”

“I was disgusted,” said Ann Carver, a Jeffco classified employee and grandmother of a Jeffco student. “(This board is) doing so many things without the knowledge of other board members. I’ve attended a couple of the past meetings, and I just can’t believe it.”

Carver was one of many Jeffco employees who stayed after the meeting to talk about what had transpired.

“I’m concerned about Jeffco,” Carver said. “What’s going to happen to my granddaughter and her education? What’s going to happen to our jobs? I think (the board majority is) out to destroy public education.”

Stevenson was hired as the district’s superintendent in 2002. The Jeffco schools alumna was named Colorado Superintendent of the Year in 2010 and was one of four finalists for the national award that same year.

Contact Daniel Laverty at 303-350-1042 or Daniel@evergreenco.com. Follow Daniel on Twitter @LavertyReports.