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Community input cut short as Jeffco School Board votes on new superintendent

Six minutes. That’s how quickly community members needed to have signed up for public comment if they wanted to be heard at the May 27 Jeffco School Board meeting to approve Daniel McMinimee as the new superintendent. Only 22 of 86 speakers who had signed up were heard on Tuesday, which meant anyone who clicked the “submit” button of the online public comment sign-up form at 8:07 am or later were silenced.

Lines formed more than hour before a Jeffco School Board meeting to approve Daniel McMinimee as the new superintendent. There were two lines: one for those signed up for public comment and one for everyone else.
Lisa Cook

Efforts by Jeffco School Board members Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman to extend the 45-minute public comment time were voted down by the board majority. “It’s our job to listen to our public,” Fellman told the other board members. “We have not allowed our community to come before this board [regarding the superintendent finalist] until tonight,” Dahlkemper said, adding it didn’t matter to her if public comment took one or three hours.

Board member John Newkirk asked, “What’s the practical limit?” in reference to public comment, adding that with so many speakers, there was bound to be some repetition in what each had to say. Board President Ken Witt, who has not enforced the board’s stated 45-minute limit for the first part of public comment any of the previous meetings over which he has presided, repeatedly referred to the rule that allowed for only 45 minutes of public comment.

Board member Julie Williams argued against extending the 45-minute time limit, but suggested that more speakers could be heard if individual speakers were limited to one minute and groups to three minutes. Usually individuals receive three minutes and groups of four or more receive 10 minutes, but when more than 25 speakers sign up, time can be restricted to two minutes for individuals and five for groups, as was the case Tuesday night. Tuesday night was also the first time the board majority chose to shorten the time allotted to individuals and groups for public comment, despite the fact that the number of speakers also exceeded 25 at the May 1 and April 3 regular meetings.

“We need to hear from our community before we vote,” Fellman argued. Newkirk countered, “One hour is sufficient time to hear from our community.” The motion to extend public comment failed on a 3 to 2 vote. The board room was packed with would-be speakers and others, with an overflow group in a room at the Marriot next door, where video from the meeting was being streamed.

Of the 22 that had the opportunity to speak, the vast majority said they wanted the board to reopen the search process and provide more finalists. Only five spoke in favor of approving McMinimee as superintendent.

One of those five currently works with McMinimee in Douglas County, where McMinimee is the Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education. He spoke highly of McMinimee and said that McMinimee cared about teachers.

Bini Abbot, a longtime Jeffco resident whose children attended Jeffco Schools, said, “I feel this school district has been hijacked.” She asked them to “have the guts” to hold another hearing to allow all people to have a chance to speak and said the current online sign-up process cuts out residents who are not computer literate.

Another Jeffco resident, Elizabeth Capritta, questioned the proposed $280,000 salary for McMinimee, stating that he has a “CV that does not justify that expenditure.” With a decision like that, she begins to question all of their decisions, she said.

“Start listening to the public because that is your job,” parent Scott Antill said. “Stop using our district for your own political agenda.”

Rheana Rogers, a Jeffco small business owner, told the board that McMinimee’s $280,000 proposed salary was not aligned with “people who ran on a platform of transparency and smart spending.”

Several others also questioned the $280,000 and the five-year provision of the contract. Ami Prichard, speaking for the Jefferson County Education Association leadership team, said JCEA had noticed several inconsistencies between the proposed contract being negotiated with McMinimee and the contract being negotiated with teachers. She questioned why McMinimee was being offered a five-year contract when the Jeffco School Board had refused to extend the teacher contract, and why the board was pushing for performance goals tied to salary increases for teachers but was not including a performance-based component in the superintendent’s contract.

Several speakers also referenced a petition posted on the website asking the board to reexamine the candidate pool. The petition, posted on May 26 by Jeffco resident Michael Clark, asks the board to reconsider McMinimee as the sole finalist, revisit the candidate pool and select three or four new finalists. Clark, who said he voted for Witt and Newkirk, explained that in 17 superintendent searches in Colorado school districts since 2013, all of the school boards selected at least three finalists and many selected four.

“In our opinion,” the petition reads, “by providing only one finalist on a 3-2 split decision, the board majority has acted not only against common sense, but also against the advice of Ray and Associates and the thinking of other school boards in Colorado.” The timeline provided by Ray and Associates included interviews with semifinalists on May 9 and 10, and interviews with finalist candidates on May 15. Instead, McMinimee was announced as the sole finalist on May 10 after the board finished the semifinalist interviews and discussion.

Clark had signed up for public comment but was not allowed to speak or present the petition, which had more than 5,600 signatures by the time the meeting began. Clark was only one speaker away from his turn before Witt ended public comment. As of late Wednesday night, the petition had more than 5,850 signatures.

That petition and several speakers also commented on a Facebook post by Williams, that told her followers “Sign up on line- Be ready at 8:00 or your voice might not be heard and we will be drowned out by the progressives!” The post, which was on Williams’ personal Facebook page, also said, “Remember- All eyes are on Jeffco and what we do will not only make a difference in Jeffco but the state and the nation! We need to continue to Stand Strong!” Several speakers said her post was possibly in violation of board policies such as GP-08, which states that board members will “demonstrate respect for each others’ opinions, and GP-17, which concerns community engagement.

After public comment ended, the board asked Human Resources Director Amy Weber to present a brief slide show outlining the hiring process. Weber said that Ray and Associates contacted 257 individuals, received 63 applications, and presented the board with 11 prescreened candidates plus two alternatives. Six candidates were invited to interview, and five participated. McMinimee was chosen as the sole finalist from those five.

During the discussion that followed, Dahlkemper questioned why the board was not giving the matter two public hearings as required by the bylaws. Witt said that the May 10 meeting in which McMinimee was announced as the sole finalist counted as one of those two hearings and argued that the board was not in violation of bylaws.

Fellman requested that the vote be tabled until the board brings more than one finalist to the public. Williams disagreed, saying, “We went through a very fair and balanced process.”

Newkirk said that no other candidates were suggested as finalists, but Fellman said that they were told in executive session that there would be only one finalist. Fellman and Dahlkemper have repeatedly said that part of the reason they both voted against McMinimee as the sole finalist was because they wanted more than one finalist to be considered. Both also said that having only two public forums in a district this large did not give the public enough of a chance to meet the finalist before Tuesday’s vote. The Jeffco School Board voted to approve McMinimee as the superintendent, 3 to 2, with Dahlkemper and Fellman voting against the motion.

Several components of the proposed contract were also questioned during the discussion. Fellman pointed out that “83 percent of the teachers in our district have the same credentials he does.” When Witt countered that experience mattered too, Fellman responded, “The experience piece is really puzzling to me because I don’t see the experience.”

Several suggestions were brought forward, including limited the contract term to one year, lowering the base salary, adding performance components, and reducing the contract buyout to $100,000. None of those motions were approved, though Witt said he would be open to reducing the contract term to three years, lowering the base salary to $240,000 with an additional $40,000 performance component, and to reducing the buyout to six months rather than a full year. Under the current draft, McMinimee can be dismissed at any time but would be eligible for a full year’s pay.

Performance goals were also discussed, with Witt and Newkirk proposing that performance goals be set for McMinimee by Sept. 1. Dahlkemper suggested that the contract vote be postponed to the June 19 meeting so the board would have time to set goals during its June 5 meeting. She noted that the board had unanimously agreed to several goals earlier in the year and said those could be aligned with the superintendent’s performance goals.

Newkirk said he didn’t feel a week was enough time to set performance goals, and Witt said he did not think specific goals belonged in a contract. He preferred to see them included in an annual performance review instead.

“I just don’t understand the resistance by this board to setting performance goals,” Dahlkemper said.

The meeting was disrupted repeatedly by cheers and catcalls from audience members frustrated that they hadn’t had a chance to speak. At least three people were removed from the meeting by security. It was further disrupted by multiple microphone malfunctions that prevented those present from hearing the discussion during the meeting. Replacement microphones were brought out but they too failed to function properly much of the time.

After Witt declared the meeting adjourned, Dahlkemper stopped him and asked whether the board was going to allow everyone else who had signed up for public comment a chance to speak. Witt said no because the board had already voted to approve McMinimee. One speaker approached the podium and her comment anyhow, but Witt told security to remove her.

The board will discuss and vote on McMinimee’s contract at the June 5 meeting.

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