“I don’t think it’s coincidence that you have Jeffco, Dougco, Cherry Creek and Denver all looking for superintendents at the same time,” Tom Boasberg muses from his office in Singapore, where he moved after resigning as superintendent of Denver Public Schools in 2018.
“It points to the challenges inherent in the role and structure,” he says. “You get beat up a lot in the role. You’re not going to do the role and not be punched in the face. It’s a role that people have very strong feelings about and very diverse perspectives on, and it’s not for the faint of heart.”
Boasberg still works as a superintendent. Today he’s superintendent of the Singapore American School — serving about 4,000 students rather than Denver’s 89,000. He still thinks fondly of his almost ten years as DPS's leader, but his current job has a particularly welcome asset. “It’s less politically divisive,” he says.
In the span of several months, the superintendents of Colorado’s four largest school districts all announced they would be stepping down — leaving the four districts looking for new leaders. Last September, Jefferson County’s Jason Glass resigned after three years as superintendent to accept a new position as Kentucky’s Commissioner of Education. The same month, Douglas County superintendent Thomas Tucker stepped down after two years during an investigation into a workplace-discrimination allegation against him, which later found that he did not violate district policies. In November, DPS’s Susana Cordova left for a deputy superintendent position in Dallas after two years as superintendent — and amid rumors that mistreatment by boardmembers drove her to resign. And in January, Cherry Creek's Scott Siegfried, who became superintendent in late 2018, announced that he will retire at the end of this school year to spend more time with his family.
According to the Colorado Department of Education, the four districts aren’t the only ones in the state looking for new leaders. CDE spokesperson Erica Grasmick says that as of February 10, there were 22 positions that needed to be filled for the 2021-2022 school year between superintendent jobs and BOCES executive director spots (a Board of Cooperative Educational Services serves two or more districts).
While that number isn't as large as it has been in previous years — out of the state’s 200 superintendent and executive director roles, 36 turn over in a typical year, the CDE says — it's unusual for Denver, Dougco, Jeffco and Cherry Creek to all be competing against each other in superintendent searches. The CDE doesn’t keep data on superintendent vacancies, but district documents going back twenty years show that during the past two decades, the four districts never had simultaneous superintendent searches.
But in these challenging times — when the concepts of remote learning, mask requirements and equity in education have become politicized debates — the largest districts all lost superintendents. In his note to the Cherry Creek community, Siegfried mentioned that the past year and its pandemic strongly influenced his decision to resign. Glass, the former Jeffco superintendent who resigned for the job opportunity in Kentucky, also names COVID alongside political tensions as the top challenges of his tenure.
“As we were managing COVID, parents were really demanding in-person instruction with very few limitations,” Glass says. “There was a group — they didn’t want masks, they didn’t want anything. And then the teachers’ association basically wanted to not have any in-person instruction. Trying to find some middle ground in between them was a challenge.”
Glass went into the job knowing there was a political divide in the area, and hoped to “move the community past the partisan splits,” he says.
“That’s something that I wish we could have made more progress on, was sort of getting people out of wars over who’s going to control the district,” Glass notes. “That was a significant challenge for Jeffco, and I think it continues to be.”
Room at the Top
Now the state's four districts will be steering through the rest of the pandemic with new leaders at the helm. And just as these districts have grappled with similar challenges, they'll also rely on many of the same selling points during their searches.
The most recent CDE data shows that in the 2019-2020 school year, Denver, Dougco and Cherry Creek all ranked in the top ten for highest superintendent salaries, each awarding their superintendents more than $260,000 annually. Jeffco ranked thirteenth, with a superintendent salary of about $248,000 — still well above what the average Colorado school district pays its superintendent: $129,426.
Additionally, the four school districts are the only ones in Colorado that serve more than 50,000 students. Together, they educate nearly a third of all Colorado students.
With so much in common, each school board is employing a different strategy to set itself apart in the superintendent hunt. Dougco, which launched its search on February 10, has stated it will only consider regional candidates, no national ones. Cherry Creek is considering a similar path, though it has not yet committed to any strategy or even posted the job yet, according to Cherry Creek school board president Karen Fisher.
“My understanding is that there are school districts across the country that are looking for superintendents. So I hope we’re going to have internal candidates. I don’t know yet, but that would allow a lot of flexibility,” she says. “All of our recent superintendents have done a phenomenal job with preparing several people in their cabinet.”
Jeffco and Denver are using search firms to guide their processes. Jeffco has hired Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, a company with vast experience selecting school district superintendents. In 2018, the Los Angeles Daily News reported that HYA had placed superintendents into 45 of the nation’s 100 largest districts. For Jeffco, HYA has been overseeing an extensive community engagement effort, holding more than fifty online community forums in January.
Meanwhile, DPS announced on February 5 that it had selected Chicago-based Alma Advisory Group as its search firm. While Alma has previously worked to fill high-level positions in school districts, it has never led a superintendent search. But Alma has promised to go above and beyond in engaging the community, says Denver school board president Carrie Olson.
The district was also attracted to Alma because the firm is woman- and minority-led, overseen by CEO Monica Santana Rosen. “We’ve heard how important it is that our next leader share values of equity by incorporating an anti-bias and anti-racist lens to best serve the students of Denver Public Schools,” Olson notes. “In order to find that type of leader, it is important the firm we work with shares that lens, and we found that with Alma.”
The Denver Dilemma
As DPS’s search gets under way, the district has an extra burden that its three major Colorado competitors do not: Allegations that the board repeatedly mistreated former superintendent Cordova sparked unflattering local and national press for DPS.
The issue exploded in November after Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and former mayor Federico Peña wrote a public letter calling for an independent committee, not the school board, to take over the DPS search.
“New school board members…have opposed [Cordova’s] efforts at almost every opportunity. We do not believe that this dysfunctional board can now attract a more capable superintendent than Susana Cordova,” the mayors wrote. “The job is going to be even more challenging since we know that both Jefferson County and Douglas County are looking for superintendents.”
Just days before the mayors released their statement, fourteen former DPS boardmembers, all women, voiced similar concerns in an op-ed published in Westword. DPS boardmembers routinely interrupted Cordova in meetings and had written a “painful” performance evaluation of her in August, grading Cordova on four previously undiscussed categories, they noted.
In other years, the DPS board has set formal goals for its superintendent, but this time, the board said it didn’t get around to setting goals because of ongoing events. The document awarded Cordova a 2.57 out of 5 in a “Community and Equity” category and stated that Cordova “continues to struggle” with Black and Spanish-speaking communities in northeast Denver.
In a video statement posted days after Cordova announced her resignation, school board members said they were saddened by her decision and that it had caught them off-guard.
"The board has been clear that the superintendent and her staff should focus on the [district's] crisis priorities over the last six months in order to best serve our students and staff during this pandemic," Olson said in the video (which the board refers to when asked for a current comment). "In addition, the superintendent and the board agreed to delay work on the next Denver Plan to best meet the urgent needs of our families in DPS."
So far, the DPS board has not followed the urging of community leaders to relinquish its superintendent selection authority to an independent committee. And during a February 4 mandatory training focused on several topics, Matt Cook, a director for the Colorado Association of School Boards, advised the board on how it might handle the challenges that lay ahead.
“This sounds a little simplistic, but if you don’t tell the superintendent that’s something you want them to do, you can’t then turn around and hold them accountable. They’re not mind-readers,” Cook said. “If the board has written good policy and clear goals, any reasonable interpretation the superintendent brings back of evidence that they have accomplished those goals should be acceptable to the board.”
With more trainings planned and a long search ahead, some boardmembers have indicated that changes in DPS board-superintendent relations may be on the horizon.
If the DPS board doesn’t publicly state that it’s committed to that change, “a potential risk that we run in a superintendent search is detracting people,” boardmember Angela Cobián warned during the training. “Or having candidates think about: ‘How am I going to be able to do my job in this school district?’”
As Boasberg looks back on a decade-long tenure as DPS superintendent, he offers some advice for the next person to take the job:
“There’s so many people and so many forces that want to push you in one way or another, and it’s often about adult interests and not student interests,” he concludes. “The perspective is not ‘Are you not going to get hit?’ It’s ‘Are you going to keep getting back up and try and learn?’ To help young people — that was what really sustained me.”
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.