School Board makes headlines

Controversies, decisions make it 2003 newsmaker of the year

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A court case with statewide implications, controversial personnel issues and the hiring of a new leader -- all while its schools, students and staff continued to perform at some of the highest levels in the state.

It was a busy year for the Steamboat Spring School Board, the Steamboat Pilot & Today's newsmaker of the year.

"This last year, by far, had the most challenges in number and the most challenges in impact," former School Board president Paul Fisher said of the last of his four years in office.

The year 2003 began with several parents complaining about a district policy allowing community groups, including religious ones, on school grounds during the day. One of those parents went on to be elected to the School Board in November.

The year ended with a larger group of parents and community members rallying to support former high school football coach Mark Drake before all but disappearing for the School Board's final meeting of the year.

In between, it was a year characterized by an ongoing legal battle with the proponents of a Montessori charter school, a resolution to a bitter feud between a longtime principal and superintendent, the hiring of a national public relations firm to help the district improve its communication and its image, budget cuts topping $300,000 and the ushering in of a new district leader and School Board members.

And that's just to name some of the bigger issues faced by a construction company owner, a day-care center director, an attorney, a retired executive and a restaurant owner who sat on the five-member elected board for most of 2003.

Administrators' public feud

Several contentious issues already were well entrenched when January began. A dispute between Strawberry Park Elementary School Principal John DeVincentis and Superintendent Cyndy Simms arose in June 2002 after DeVincentis received a poor performance evaluation from the former district leader.

DeVincentis appealed his performance evaluation to the School Board, which held a hearing to resolve the matter. DeVincentis eventually was awarded his bonus and salary increase, but his evaluation marks went unchanged.

In December 2002, the School Board ordered Simms and DeVincentis to attend mediation in an effort to create an effective working relationship. They attended a one-day mediation in February, and both said publicly that their problems were behind them.

The dispute was well-publicized and divided the community; one group went so far as to form "Parents for Dr. D" to support the principal.

A request for a district survey made by Parents for Dr. D during the midst of the feud resulted in a districtwide audit some say was long overdue.

The School Board agreed in January to hire a firm to conduct a communications audit of the district. The National Schools Public Relations Association was selected to conduct the audit, which involved numerous focus forums comprising an array of district stakeholders.

"Anytime you gain more info, it helps you move forward," current School Board President Paula Stephenson said in January. "We can't be an effective board unless the issues are put in front of us. We hope this audit will reveal the good and the bad."

It did both.

The 60-page final audit report included a series of recommendations to improve breakdowns and problems in the district's and board's communication system. In the report, NSPRA stated the tarnished image of the School Board was largely the result of the Simms-DeVincentis feud and the manner in which policy governance is practiced in the district.

Defying the state

A second major issue faced by the School Board also originated in June 2002, when a group of parents calling themselves the Montessori Steering Committee submitted a charter school application to the board. The application, which called for a Montessori charter school in Steamboat, was denied by the board in October.

The Montessori Steering Committee appealed the board's decision to the State Board of Education, which supported the charter school application and remanded the issue back to the School Board for reconsideration. But the School Board again denied a revised application, and that denial was appealed a second time to the state.

On April 9, the State Board of Education sided with the Montessori applicants for a second time, ordering the School Board to approve the application and begin to negotiate in good faith with the applicants.

The School Board, however, resisted negotiations and rejected the State Board's decision, calling it an unfunded mandate. Several of the state's most influential politicians, including Gov. Bill Owens, weighed in on the actions of the School Board. Some guaranteed a change in the state's charter law because of the board's actions.

All the while, the School Board has stood behind its position that the financial impact of another district charter school would negatively impact the programs it already has in place.

"Is it right to divert money and add added costs to our district for (school) choice when we could be using those funds to improve our already excellent education system for all students? Do you get enough value for that added cost? We're arguing the community will not get the added value by siphoning off money from the other kids," Fisher said earlier this year.

In July, the Montessori Steering Committee filed a lawsuit against the school district seeking a court order for the School Board to approve its application and begin negotiating a charter school contract.

An advisory question formulated by the School Board appeared on the Nov. 4 election ballot and asked Steamboat Springs voters if they supported the School Board's stance against the Montessori school. More than 60 percent of voters said they did support that stance.

A series of legal maneuvers by both sides followed, including motions for summary judgment. As it stands presently, Routt County District Judge Michael O'Hara can make a ruling on the case at any time, Montessori attorney Bill Bethke said recently.

Superintendent resigns

Depending on whom was asked, the April resignation of Simms was met with cheers or sorrow. Simms, a longtime district administrator, took the superintendent position in Mercer Island, Wash.

Before leaving, at the School Board's request, she fulfilled the task of cutting more than $300,000 from the district's budget. The cuts were necessitated primarily by declining student enrollment.

Simms' resignation, effective at the end of the 2002-03 school year, set in motion an elaborate search to identify her replacement.

The School Board, whose duty it is to hire and evaluate the superintendent, paid a national search firm more than $14,000 to find Dr. Donna Howell, most recently employed in Texas by Edison Schools. Howell accepted the district's offer and began a new chapter in district history when she took office in August.

"We went out to get someone with the most experience we could find for where we are as a district," Fisher said. "Donna is that person. She's really exceeded my expectations."

The beginning of the 2003-04 school year signaled the start of Howell's reign in the district, and with the board's permission she immediately set out to re-engage the community in the district's vision and goals. Taking recommendations from NSPRA's audit report and input gathered from a series of focus groups held over the past two months, Howell has now provided the School Board a wealth of information to help it determine if and how to revise the district's mission statement and develop vision statements.

Board makeup shifts

In addition to a new superintendent, the district welcomed two new School Board members as a result of the Nov. 4 election.

Of the three board seats up for election, Fisher and fellow board member Tom Sharp, viewed by many as the most influential board members over the past four years, stepped down. Pat Gleason was the only member of the old guard who decided to run again.

For the first time in seven years, there was a contested School Board race, viewed by some as indicative of the controversies faced by the School Board this year.

"I think there was a contingency in the community that definitely felt there needed to be new members on the board," Fisher said. "Nobody's irreplaceable."

Voters elected Michael Loomis and Jeff Troeger, both parents of district students, after a lengthy campaign process that included several candidate forums. Loomis and Troeger took the seats of former board members Fisher and Tom Sharp. Incumbent Pat Gleason defeated two challengers to maintain his seat.

Coach Drake controversy

A new controversy erupted late this fall when longtime high school football coach Mark Drake said the School Board forced his resignation. The School Board said Drake, who is employed under a post retirement employment agreement, willfully signed two letters of resignation and has no right to continued employment under the specifications of his contract.

The issue quickly became heated as supporters of Drake attended three consecutive School Board meetings to declare their desire the coach be retained and to ask that allegations against the coach be removed from his personnel file. The School Board stayed its ground, however, and its December meeting wasn't attended by any Drake supporters.

Despite all the issues that came before it this year, not all of which could be mentioned here, there's only one measure for the success of the School Board, Fisher said.

"No matter what us adults are doing, no matter what was going on, the kids and staff got it done," Fisher said.

Two district schools were named "excellent" under the state's accountability system with the other three rated "high." Colorado Student Assessment Program test scores improved district-wide, and high school Principal Dave Schmid was named state secondary principal of the year.

"There's only one thing I look at at the end of the day, and that's the results," Fisher said. "You don't hope for those traumatic situations, but you learn to keep your eye on the ball and what's important -- the results."

-- To reach Brent Boyer, call 871-4243

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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