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Jeffco superintendent finalist faces tricky road ahead

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When Ron Cabrera was hired as superintendent of the Thompson School District in 2008, he took the helm of the 16,000-student district without the full support of the board.

The vote to give him the top post was 4-3.

But former board member Marcia Venzke, who was one of those opposed to Cabrera’s hiring, said once the new leader had been chosen, the board got behind him.

Daniel McMinimee (Provided by Jefferson County Schools)

Daniel McMinimee (Provided by Jefferson County Schools)

“We made the decision as a board to support him because a successful superintendent makes for a successful district,” she said.

Whether the same goes for Daniel McMinimee, who emerged as the sole finalist for superintendent of bitterly divided Jefferson County Schools, remains to be seen. The board voted 3-2 on Saturday to name him the only contender for the job.

The board still needs to officially approve the hiring of McMinimee, who serves as assistant superintendent of secondary education for the Douglas County School District. But barring some unforeseen shift in positions on the board over the next couple of weeks, McMinimee will become the next leader of the 85,000-student district.

And the vote to put him in that position likely won’t be unanimous.

Bruce Caughey, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, said divisions in school leadership typically manifest after an election — not during the superintendent hiring process.

“As a superintendent coming into the job, you would like the unified backing of the board,” Caughey said. “But I’ve seen superintendents navigate split boards.”

Cabrera, who now works for the Boulder Valley School District, said the split vote on his hiring did “give him pause” going in, but he managed to forge a productive relationship with the board.

“For the first three years, the board that hired me did work collaboratively and cooperatively,” he said. Then, in 2012, a board of largely new members fired Cabrera.

Venzke said Cabrera made the right moves upon becoming Thompson’s superintendent. “He was very open and did a 100-day listening tour in the community,” she said. “That helped a lot because his hiring was contentious. I thought it helped heal that chasm with the school board.”

But Venzke said Jefferson County’s divisions are more “profound” than what existed in the Thompson district.

The Jefferson County Schools board has been starkly divided since a slate of conservatives — John Newkirk, Julie Williams and Ken Witt — won election in November. The board has clashed with itself, with the teachers union, and with former Superintendent Cindy Stevenson, who abruptly resigned in February.

Some see selecting an administrator from Douglas County as a not-too-subtle effort to import that county’s conservative educational policies to Jefferson County.

Tony Lewis, executive director of the Donnell-Kay Foundation, said that given the deep divisions in Jefferson County, it will be “really hard” for McMinimee to build the necessary bridges and heal wounds. But Lewis said McMinimee should start by reaching out to the two dissenting board members, Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman.

McMinimee told The Denver Post on Sunday that he plans to meet with school and community leaders ahead of the hiring vote so they can get to know him and hear about his leadership philosophy.

Liz Fagen, superintendent for the Douglas County School District, said McMinimee is a “relationship-builder” and understands the situation he is walking into.

“Dan has a lot of good qualities that will help him build relationships with the board individually and collectively,” she said.

“Leadership is about bringing people together around a collective vision — and Dan has those strengths.”

John Aguilar

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  • comment avatar Andrea May 13, 2014

    I don’t know how anyone will be able to work with a petty and divided school board like Jeffco’s. Good luck to him.

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