Superintendent Dan McMinimee at breakfast with Edgewater Elementary students. 

(Photo: Courtesy of Jefferson County School District)
Daniel McMinimee has been on the job not even two months and he’s already he’s met with more than a thousand people, from preschoolers and parents to principals.

The new superintendent of Jefferson County has a goal for his first 100 days: to be as visible and accessible as possible. He's answering questions from teachers and cafeteria workers alike on his plans for the future of the school district. 

McMinimee, who served as assistant superintendent in Douglas County before being selected for the top job in JeffCo, is facing some hard questions. He says he doesn’t have all the answers yet -- and that he is intent on soliciting community input.

“I just try to be me and tell them, ‘Here’s my past, I’ve been doing this for 27 years. I think I have a lot to offer,” he says.

The superintendent post in Jefferson County is one of the most high-profile education jobs in the state. The second-largest district in Colorado has earned praise nationally for collaborating closely with the teacher’s union to solve a budget crunch.

But McMinimee is moving into a tough job. He’s following in the footsteps of Superintendent Cynthia Stevenson, a popular leader who led the 85,000-student district for 12 years. 

But the tenor changed radically last November when voters elected three conservative school board members to the five-person board. The election divided both the board and the community, creating so much tension that there were demonstrations. Stevenson retired, saying she could not work with the new board.

McMinimee’s selection was equally fraught. While serving in the Douglas County administration, that district undertook several changes popular with conservatives, but criticized by many teachers and parents. Now, in JeffCo, teachers are worried, parents are uncertain, and rumors are rampant.

McMinimee says he’d like to focus on how to spur student academic growth and achievement; getting effective teachers in classrooms; and being responsible with the dollars the district has. But questions about the future of JeffCo schools reflect tensions over education reform statewide.  

Here are McMinimee's thoughts on two recent JeffCo school board decisions:

A vote to allocate $5 million more for charter schools:  Some protested the allocation, arguing the move doesn’t reflect what voters intended in measures 3a and 3b, which targeted money into keeping class sizes down. McMinimee disagrees with the characterization that charter schools got “an additional” $5 million. He says the board majority’s decision was about equalizing funding for charter schools, bringing them closer to the amounts provided to traditional neighborhood schools.

“Every student in Jefferson County who attends a public school is our student and so we should be equalizing those funds as much as possible to make sure that students have access to what they need to have a great education,” he says.

A vote to not expand full-day kindergarten: A $600,000 proposal would have expanded free full-day kindergarten to more schools where 35 percent of students qualify for federal free and reduced lunch.

Currently, Jefferson County provides free half-day kindergarten to all schools. It also funds free full-day kindergarten for 40 schools in which more than 35 percent of students qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program.

McMinimee disagrees with the characterization that the board voted against expanding free full-day kindergarten. Rather, he says, the board voted to gather more information. 

“The board wanted to see more of an equalized funding going to students instead of to schools, so it didn’t matter what school I was in, in should matter what my circumstances are as an individual student,” he says.

He says, for instance, if a student from a family with the means to pay for full-day kindergarten attends a school that offers it for free, that child's family pays nothing for the full-day instruction. Conversely, he says, if a low-income student doesn't attend a school that offers free full-day kindergarten (because fewer than 35 percent of the students there live in poverty), he or she is out of luck.

“So what the board said was, ‘We want to look at a different funding mechanism where those dollars follow the students, rather than the attendance boundary in which I live,'” he explains.

“Mixed bag”

McMinimee believes the other reason the board majority voted against the small expansion of full-day kindergarten is that there was a “mixed bag” of data on the merits of a full-day program versus half-day kindergarten. He attended one board meeting at which the matter was discussed. Based upon that meeting, he says the data -- gathered in JeffCo -- didn’t show a large disparity in third-grade reading results between students who’d attended full-day kindergarten and those who attended only half days. He did say that nationally, research has showed that full-day kindergarten generally improves academic performance. 

On this issue, McMinimee says his job as superintendent is to accomplish two things. First, to compile robust data for the board on the affect full-day kindergarten has on academic achievement.

“Let’s find the places where it’s been effective and why it’s been effective and what are the circumstances there,” he says. “Let’s find the places where it hasn’t been as effective and what are the circumstances surrounding that.”

Second, he says he wants to "fix" the funding issue so that all kids who would benefit from free full-day kindergarten get it.  

He is hopeful the state Legislature will take up the issue next winter and vote to fund full-day kindergarten across Colorado. He says it would “make a huge difference” to students in Jefferson County. He stopped short of saying he would lobby intensely for those votes. 

Private school vouchers       

McMinimee says he respects the right of local school boards to make decisions. For instance, the Douglas County board voted for a pilot program implementing private school vouchers. McMinimee says he wouldn't push for vouchers in Jefferson County, but that he would respect the wishes of the community or the board of education. The impetus for vouchers, he says, should come from them. 

McMinimee did not answer a question about whether he personally likes private school vouchers. He said he thinks creating a voucher program was the Douglas County board's answer to specific issues there, including overcrowding. 

Performance-based pay

"Pay for performance" -- using evaluation results and market-based salary criteria to pay teachers -- is a strategy McMinimee says JeffCo should consider.   

“I do believe that a highly effective teacher needs to be compensated toward that,” he says. “Now what that looks like, the devil's in the details. Those are all the things you work through with different employee groups."

Beginning in the 2012-2013 school year, all new teachers in Douglas County were hired using the market-based pay system. Teachers are placed into one of five pay “bands” based on the number of teachers applying for jobs in different subject areas and grade levels.

McMinimee says market-based pay was never intended to be a value statement on an individual teacher’s worth to the system, but rather a reflection of the local education labor market.

“What it morphed into was teachers feeling like, ‘I’m a second grade teacher and you value me less because you’re paying me less in the system,’” he says. “The reality was no teacher in the system currently was affected by those pay bands," he says. "They didn’t ratchet back a teacher’s pay because of what bands they were in.”  

But when “pay for performance was introduced, a teacher’s pay was also determined by his or her evaluation results.  

“So if I’m highly effective and I’m in the middle of the market, I would get a higher raise than if I was at the top of the market and I was highly effective,” he says. “And those are really contentious discussions to have.”       

Teachers' unions 

McMinimee was the lead negotiator for the Douglas County district in contract negotiations with teachers in 2012. Those talks failed and the district chose not renew its contract with the Douglas County teacher’s union.

McMinimee says he doesn’t believe severing the contract has been detrimental in Douglas County “from the standpoint of the work that happens in schools.” He believes it allowed the district to work with a “broader range of teachers” in developing a nuanced and detailed teacher evaluation system.

He says, however, that the failure to reach a collective bargaining agreement has negatively impacted the district’s “climate.”

“My role [as lead negotiator] was on behalf of the board of education,” he says. “My experience in schools, my being a teacher and a building principal, I’ve advocated for teachers my entire career and I’ll continue to do so. But the role that I was in was trying to get 28 different items at a negotiating table and we got a number of those items resolved. But in the end, people dug their heels in and said ‘that’s not negotiable,’ …and so I don’t know what a lead negotiator is supposed to do with things are 'not negotiable.'”

Courtney Smith, president of the Douglas County Federation, wrote in a statement to CPR, “Any member of the public who sat through the open negotiations sessions saw firsthand how unwilling the district was to negotiate in good faith or to work with teachers to benefit the future of the school district.”

McMinimee says he hopes to have a good working relationship with JeffCo's union, the Jefferson County Education Association.

“I’m hoping that people will get refocused on what’s most important,” he says. “That’s what’s happening in classrooms and how can we work together as a team to work on the great things that are happening in JeffCo -- and put some of the other things aside. My intention is to keep working with anyone who wants to keep working with me toward making JeffCo a better place for students and for staff.”

Colorado Matters’ interview with Superintendent Daniel McMinimee continues on Thursday, Aug. 28 with a discussion on school-based budgeting.