Summit school board selects new superintendent in emotional public meeting

DILLON — As dozens of community members watched via Zoom on Tuesday morning, the Summit School District Board of Education selected Marion Smith Jr. for superintendent in an emotional public video conference.

Smith most recently served through December as chief operating and education officer for TechSmart in Seattle. In his application and interview with the board and stakeholder groups, Smith emphasized that his “understanding of navigating complex education systems” as well as his prioritization on “equity” distinguished him from the group applicants.

In his interview Friday, Smith defined equity as “everyone getting what they need in order to thrive.” He zeroed in on his racial-equity leadership and student-centric results to close gaps in achievement and have continuous systemwide improvement.

“Equity is not something that we do,” Smith said Friday. “It’s how we do everything. It informs how we think, how we do policy, how we do resource allocation.”

It was this focus that led some community stakeholders and several board members to champion Smith over the four other candidates: interim Aspen School District Superintendent Thomas Heald, Jefferson County Public Schools Chief Academic Officer Matthew Flores, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt National Director of Academic Planning and Analytics Tammy Clementi and Weld School District Chief Academic Officer Dawn Pare.

During their thorough discourse Tuesday, the board zeroed in on Smith, Heald and Flores as their three final considerations. As more than three dozen community members watched the conversation, the board debated the merits of each candidate.

Board members Gloria Quintero, Isabel Rodriguez and Consuelo Redhorse led the support for Smith, who was the only candidate to never have worked in Colorado. Before he worked for five months on a limited-term contract for TechSmart, Smith worked five other jobs across Washington since 2011. He also previously held education jobs in Philadelphia and Las Vegas.

Listen here to Tuesday’s full board of education conversation regarding selecting a new superintendent and go to the Summit School District website to listen to all of the five candidates interviews as well as a stakeholder conversation.

After previous board straw polls on Tuesday’s call, there was a final vote. Bradley was the only board member to not pick Smith from the three finalists, instead voting for Heald. In her reasoning for preferring Heald, Bradley said “there was really no response” when the board asked Smith, “Why Summit?” which she found concerning. She added that she was concerned Smith had moved around “a ton,” saying she worried how long he’d stay in Summit. She also said 80% to 90% of out-of-county hires she’s made for the district have had a tough time transitioning to Summit’s mountain community.

“I have very strong concerns about fit,” Bradley said.

Quintero spoke through tears and said words like “a good fit” were hurtful language to Hispanic community members like her. Rodriguez echoed Quintero’s sentiment and said she felt it was time for change, to “lean forward” and to “allow a person of color to sit in that leadership role.”

“… For me, that’s a strength,” Redhorse said in response to concerns about Smith’s focus on racial equity. “We really need to look into someone who is ready to knock it out of the ballpark and work really hard on behalf of our kids. … I feel that Dr. Smith would be able to take the helm and move that ship really fast.”

Summit School District Superintendent-elect Marion Smith Jr.
Courtesy Marion Smith Jr.

Bradley then apologized for using the term “fit” but said she didn’t intend for it to be “an exclusionary term.” She further contextualized her concerns with Smith were specific to the “meshing” of his skills and experience “with the current needs of the district.”

Board President Kate Hudnut, who voted for Smith, said she hoped the next superintendent would be humble enough “to realize they are going to need support” amid the pandemic and ensuing difficult financial times. She specifically said Smith might need a “really strong public relations team.”

If and when the board and Smith agree to a one-year contract, he would begin his term July 1. He would succeed Kerry Buhler, who announced her resignation from the position earlier this year. The board hopes to finalize Smith’s contract by May 28.