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Jeffco School Board majority forces Stevenson into early resignation

Citing a lack of respect and trust from the three new Jeffco School Board members, Superintendent Cindy Stevenson told a packed board room of more than 250 people that her last day would be by the end of the month rather than the June 30 date given when she announced her retirement in November.

The announcement came only two days after board president Ken Witt called for an executive session to discuss “personnel matters” about Stevenson during Saturday’s study session about the budget.

The vote to go into executive session was originally scheduled after the budget conversation. Witt amended the agenda to put the personnel item first on the agenda.

“I can’t lead and manage because I am not trusted or respected by this Board of Education,” Stevenson said.

“They do not trust me and they do not respect me,” she said. “Consequently, I did approach the board it was my initiation, to say we need to do something so the district can move forward. I will be gone before the end of the month.”

“This is news to us that we’re having this conversation to begin with,” Lesley Dahlkemper told the other board members. “There was an executive session put on the board agenda. We didn’t know what the topic of that was, except that I think it said something about ‘superintendent’ and ‘take action.’”

“Let’s be really clear,” Dahlkemper said. “This is about the three board majority, and I want to ask the three new members of the board how this decision is good for 85,000 kids.”

“This board majority has hired a board attorney behind closed doors — there was just a discussion behind closed doors with Mr. Witt, not the four other members of the board; this board approved nearly half a million dollars for a charter school whose student achievement is nothing to rave about,” she said.

“Now this new board is trying to push out a nationally-recognized leader in education, and you tell me how that’s good for children,” Dahlkemper told the other board members. “This district is moving in the wrong direction with this decision. I don’t support it.”

“I just wanted to say, that to be part of this board that is doing this makes me sick,” board member Jill Fellman said. “In her tenure, our graduation rates have increased, our remediation rates have dropped, she has led our district to excellence across this country.”

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

Fellman asked what the board was going to do in the interim, but in response Witt called for a ten-minute recess. Witt and Julie Williams left the boardroom and consulted with their lawyer.

“This is what becomes the headline. It’s not about our kids, it’s not about our focus as a board on student achievement, it’s not about ensuring we have a strong, effective leader in place. It’s about backroom discussion.” Dahlkemper told the room during the recess.

When Witt and Williams returned, Witt informed the crowd that security had asked them to adjourn the meeting. The meeting had lasted less than 30 minutes and the original topic, the 2014-15 budget, was not discussed.

The meeting had been interrupted repeatedly by the audience, both with standing ovations for Stevenson and angry outbursts in response to actions like Witt’s decision to take a recess behind closed doors.

The Denver Post reported that Stevenson had wanted to stay until after the TCAP exams were completed and leave March 31, but the attorney hired by the board majority to represent the school board, Brad Miller, said the board majority wanted her out by Saturday.

On Friday, the Denver Post had reported that the discussion at Saturday’s meeting would not be about firing Stevenson, and on Saturday, Witt agreed, stating that the disagreement was about when she would leave.

“Please remember, we have a tradition of excellence, a tradition of greatness, and we need to sustain that over the next couple of weeks. It is not going to be easy, but together we can do it,” Stevenson told supporters after the meeting. “Anyone who needs to make sense of this, I am happy to meet with you.”

An interim superintendent has not been named. Witt has told the press that the four district officials that are named in the succession plan — the chief financial officer, chief academic officer, chief operating officer and chief school effectiveness officer — will report directly to the Jeffco School Board. It is unclear if that plan will stand because a transition plan has not been discussed or voted on by the board in public, as is required by law.

Stevenson, who was named the 2010 Colorado Superintendent of the year, was one of four finalists for the national Superintendent of the Year award that same year, and who was designated an Education Week “Leader to Learn From” last year, has worked for Jeffco Schools for 40 years. Her 12 years as superintendent make her the longest-serving superintendent in Jeffco.

She announced this week that she had accepted a new director position with the Colorado Association of School Executives, slated to begin after her contract ended this summer.