Simms' tenure in Steamboat comes to a close

Superintendent moving on after 20 years in school district

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Twenty years ago, as she drove over the Colorado River near State Bridge, Cyndy Kaufmann got a strange feeling.

"I felt at that very moment that there was this momentous thing about to happen," she said last week, surrounded by half-filled boxes in her Steamboat Springs office. "And it did."

It was early in the summer of 1983, and Kaufmann, the unmarried principal of a kindergarten through twelfth-grade school in Parachute, was heading north on Colorado 131 in her racing green Volkswagen Sirocco. Her destination was Steamboat Springs, a city she had never visited, but a place, as she says, she had a feeling about.

"I was single, I was hang gliding, running and skiing, and I thought this would be a great place to go," she said. "I had always heard it was a great place to be."

Kaufmann -- whose last name would change to Simms when she married in 1986 -- came to Steamboat in 1983 to interview for the Steamboat Springs School District assistant superintendent position. She accepted the job offer shortly after the interview.

Thus began the colorful history of one of Steamboat's most influential educators.

Today, that chapter in Steamboat history comes to a close when Simms pulls away in her green Ford Explorer and heads northwest to Mercer Island, Wash., where she begins anew in a school district quite similar to the one she leaves behind.

Simms said she was hired as assistant superintendent to identify district objectives and set district curriculum.

The school district for which Simms came to work in 1983 was very different than the one that exists today.

In 1983, small class size was defined as 25 students per class, Simms recalls. Teachers took one-year hiatuses from classroom instruction to serve as unit coordinators for their peers. The schools had multi-age classrooms and special education was just beginning its integration into the classroom. One of the district's biggest controversies was its gifted and talented program.

Although many of the issues facing the Steamboat Springs School District have changed in the two decades since Simms first appeared on the scene, some things haven't changed a bit, she said.

"We've always had parents that really want to participate in their children's education, and I think that's a plus," Simms said. "The faces have changed, as have the issues, but the level of involvement hasn't."

Simms married fellow hang glider, runner and skier Chuck Simms in 1986. Two years later the couple moved to Placerville, Calif., where Simms became superintendent of a 1,600-student kindergarten through eighth-grade school district.

She was ready for a crisis in 1989, when she told Placerville school board members she was pregnant. Simms feared the worst. She was pleasantly surprised when she got the best.

"(Becoming a mother) will make you a real person in the eyes of the community," Simms remembers a school board member telling her.

"It was true," she said.

Then, in 1994, Simms received a series of phone calls from friends and former colleagues in Steamboat who told her superintendent J. Alan Aufderheide was retiring. While Placerville had been good to the young family, Simms felt Steamboat was a better place to raise a child.

"We knew Steamboat was a great place to raise a child," Simms said. "Placerville had some issues."

The Steamboat school district Simms returned to in 1994 was rapidly growing in size, and that growth exposed new needs for the district.

"When I came in 1994 everyone was very concerned with the need to expand the high school," Simms said.

Though the city's half-cent sales tax was approved a year earlier, the money needed to build another high school was far greater than what could be provided by the Education Fund Board.

So in November 1995, the district, now under Simms' lead, placed a $42 million ballot issue to build a new high school south of the city in the hands of voters.

"It went down in flames," Simms said. "Sixty percent voted against it. We were flabbergasted."

Simms and others, including the School Board, were devastated, even angry.

But the series of events following the initiative's failure proved to be more beneficial to the district than anyone could ever have imagined, Simms said.

There were reasons the community voted against the new high school, and the district would have to understand those reasons before it could move forward, Simms said.

"We had to step back and let the community step forward to say what they needed to say," she said. "It was a wise decision."

Community forums exposed a negative view of the high school and identified six wide-ranging school district issues of concern to the community.

"It was pretty hard for our high school teachers to hear what was being said, because it was pretty negative," Simms said.

But out of the negative came a positive. After two years of discussion and with a better understanding of community concerns and desires, another ballot initiative was put before voters in 1997. The $24 million bond called for high school renovation and reconfiguration.

Voters overwhelmingly approved it.

In two years, Simms had seen the district at its lowest point and then at one of its highest, she said. The framed front page of the Steamboat Today showing Simms and others celebrating victory on election night was one of the last items to come off Simms' office wall last week.

The high school issue had a wide ranging impact on the district, Simms said.

"A lot of what we see today stems from the failed bond issue of 1995 and the subsequent work of the 10 + 2 Committee," she said. "Today I think the community has a stronger voice."

Simms revolutionized many aspects of the Steamboat Springs School District, longtime district employee Roberta Gill said.

"(Simms) brought this district into a whole new dimension," Gill said. "It was the beginning of collaborative bargaining, a consensus model of decision-making, the building of the district administrative team and a focus on enhanced curriculum. She brought along a bunch of ideas and put them into place."

Many of Simms' ideas and actions over the past 10 years remain unpopular and openly criticized. Some point to the increase in district administration as an unnecessary expenditure of funds. Some say policy governance has been a step in the wrong direction.

Some resent Simms for the highly publicized feud with longtime Strawberry Park Elementary School Principal John DeVincentis.

Criticism is just part of the job, Simms said.

"If you want to make a difference, you have to accept the fact that (criticism) goes with the job," she said. "If you don't make decisions you shouldn't be a leader."

Simms doesn't deny that she doubted herself from time to time over the last decade.

"I think it's good to doubt yourself sometimes; to reexamine what you're doing," Simms said. "But you also have to look at who's raising the questions or doubts."

Though all the controversies and criticisms, Simms said she never lost focus on why she became a superintendent in the first place.

"Being a superintendent you can make a bigger difference for more kids," Simms said.

Her optimism often helped her through tough times, Gill said.

"She's an eternal optimist," Gill said. "She never sees the glass as half empty. It's always half full and going to be filled up soon. She always holds out hope that she'll find a way to solve an issue or work through a situation."

Former School Board member Millie Beall, who was on the board that hired Simms in 1994, said Simms became much more than a superintendent during her stay in Steamboat.

"When we hired (Simms) we were looking for and advertising for a person to come into this community and not just be a leader of the school district but to be a community leader," Beall said. "She has without a doubt been one of the community's leaders."

Paul Fisher has been a School Board member the last four years.

"Her determination and grace under fire, which can never be understated, has created reform and change in the district for the better," Fisher said.

Fisher points to the district's high-achieving schools as one affirmation of Simms' success in Steamboat.

"I never saw her waiver from her vision and her direction," he said.

That vision and direction will likely continue to be felt in Steamboat, long after Simms leaves.

The district's unfinished Knowledge and Skills-Based Pay system is just one of the more recent issues Simms has embraced and helped to move forward.

Simms looks forward to new challenges on Mercer Island. But she'll stay up to date on Steamboat issues, like the ongoing Montessori charter school situation.

And she leaves the district in good hands, she said.

"Every school district has issues," Simms said. "For me, it's the people that are here that I'm leaving the district to. It's in great hands. We'll continue moving ahead under the new leadership."

"Steamboat will continue to be an exciting place to be an educator," Simms said. "We're progressive, innovative and successful with what we do. It's been a great place for me."

And Simms has been great for Steamboat, Fisher said.

"Mercer Island sure picked a good one for walking through mine fields, taking the time to listen and understanding the challenges and concerns," Fisher said. "We wish her all the best. What a huge, huge contribution she has made to this district."

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