Summit board of education, stakeholders mull 5 superintendent candidates

DILLON — The Summit School District board of education and dozens of stakeholders this week undertook an extensive process in its attempt to hire the district’s next superintendent.

On Thursday and Friday district officials spent more than 10 hours in Zoom video-conference board meetings interviewing five candidates and consulting with stakeholders that included teachers, district staff, students and community members. The district plans to make a selection on Tuesday.

The board asked each of the candidates a total of 21 questions focused around the topics of leadership, communication, diversity, vision and visibility. The candidates the board interviewed were Thomas Heald, the current interim superintendent for the Aspen School District; Matthew Flores, the current chief academic officer for Jefferson County Public Schools; Tammy Clementi, a national director of academic planning and analytics for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Marion Smith Jr., most recently the chief operating & education officer for TechSmart Inc. in Seattle; and Dawn Pare, the current chief academic officer for the Weld RE-1 School District in Gilcrest.

Thomas Heald

Heald said as an administrator he asks two questions: Why do we do this? Why do we do this this way? He said that simple approach has opened doors for collaboration “in the most unlikely of places,” while creating trust and setting a foundation for collective impact and innovation, such as what he said was an improved and aligned mental health system in Pitkin County.

When asked how he would assess district sacrifices due to looming state budget cuts to public education amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, Heald said budgetary decisions should be filtered through the district and community’s values, attempting to not be steered too much by the “tyranny of the urgent.”

Heald also pointed to the work he’s currently doing with the Aspen district discussing the possibilities of a 20% reduction in public education funds and getting a jump-start on saving money by considering attrition with retiring positions.

Pointing to how 85% of Summit’s district budget is for salary and benefits, Heald acknowledged the cost is likely to come back at some point to personnel. He further suggested the Summit board form a COVID committee specific to assessing the budget and other ramifications.

Matthew Flores

Flores championed his belief that “information is only the beginning of what students need to learn.” He expressed his appreciation for the Summit district’s emphasis on applied learning, such as dual-language and inquiry-based instruction and highlighted his award-winning efforts to build student-internships with local employers in Jefferson County and his work with the state board of education to develop alternative accountability measures of state accreditation.

In response to the budget question, Flores said with the news Tuesday to expect a $3.3 billion reduction to the state budget, he also said any cuts should be assessed by the district’s values.

He said he wouldn’t consider layoffs this spring or summer and pointed to the Summit district’s reserve funds and considered this as a time to use that to retain workforce and having a discussion with the community on any personnel cuts next fall. Flores also pointed to the variable of 60% of the district’s budget coming from property taxes and future uncertainties there when it came to valuations.

Go to the Summit School District website to watch the full interviews with each candidate as well as the feedback conversation with almost 70 community stakeholders.

Tammy Clementi

Clementi said her recent work with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt expanded the breadth of her understanding of innovations districts across the county have used to “beat the odds,” especially during the remote learning situation of COVID-19 which, she said, “will forever impact how we think about serving our students.” She also pointed to her experience leading districts through tough times, and talked about her time as chief academic officer for Aurora Public Schools after the Aurora theater shooting.

Talking on the budget, Clementi said she’d do her “darndest” to stay away from classroom cuts. She also said she has a proposal for Summit School District in terms of a COVID-19 model, saying there are things that are going to be added to the budget “that haven’t been there before,” such as sanitizer, face masks, temperature checks and increased cleaning and custodial services.

Marion Smith Jr.

Smith singled out his experience with racial-equity leadership and student-centric strategies to close achievement gaps in educational communities diverse in ethnicity, linguistics, culture and socioeconomies. He also emphasized his work with diverse and “politically-attentive” stakeholders to navigate what he described as “the business of education,” priding himself on working on the national level on topics such as racial equity, adaptive leadership, systems thinking and culturally-responsive pedagogy and andragogy, among others.

To the budget question, Smith said a school’s budget is a “moral” document that reflects what the district believes is important.

“Follow the money,” he said, though he added he believes state funding is “archaic in the ways its allocated” and often doesn’t meet the needs of students and the district.

He also said he believes COVID-19 has shined a light on inequities in budgeting and pledged he would preserve “anything that directly impacts students in the schoolhouse.” Smith added he would cultivate a “robust” data-collection system to understand what’s working and what’s not in the district and consider options such as flexible staffing, renegotiating deals on supplies and finding inefficiencies.

Dawn Pare

Pare emphasized she believes her passion is what separates her from other candidates, fueling her work in similar mountain communities such as Eagle County, where she devoted a large amount of time to coaching teachers and professional development. She also touted her work developing a strategic statewide plan revising the teacher rubric, simplifying it and halving it in size to reduce stress and burden on principals and teachers. She said these changes encouraged instructor creativity and passion.

For the budget, Pare said the district immediately needs to keep a keen eye on property tax returns, pointing to how her current county is only at 10% compared to 40% in most years. She added she’d suggest working directly with principals and teachers to have them help think about a percentage cut from every department, saying there is nothing worse than making some cuts that teachers don’t have any input on.

“If we’re asking our kids to be innovative and creative,” Pare said, “we’re going to have to be innovative and creative too.”