The school board for the Sheridan district bordering southwest Denver voted on the incoming superintendent’s contract at a weekend meeting held in Colorado Springs, 65 miles away from community members who had objected to their choice on who should lead the district.
The board refused to release a copy of the draft contract they were considering before the Sunday morning meeting, citing attorney-client privilege. The district didn’t release the contract until more than 24 hours after the vote, even though the document became public under Colorado law at the time of the meeting.
Community members said they still haven’t seen the contract as of Monday afternoon. It has not been posted publicly by the district. Community members also said the way this weekend meeting was held was strange, but on par with what they already see as the district avoiding public input.
“We had some community members and parents wondering, even some teachers, that were wondering how much he would get paid, especially compared to Englewood schools’ superintendent,” said Indira Guzman, a mother of two district students and a community organizer for Sheridan Rising Together for Equity. “Our community has a very bitter taste after the last times they gave input. They feel it doesn’t matter what they say. They are not considered at all.”
The handling of the contract approval is the latest in a months-long controversial process for selecting a new superintendent.
Michael Clough is retiring this summer following 10 years in the role. Earlier this year, after identifying three finalists, the four members on the board butted heads on who they wanted to pick for the job. The board president filled the fifth board seat before the final vote. New board member Juanita Camacho served to break the tie and helped select Pat Sandos, a district administrator, as the new chief.
It was a blow to community members, parents, and some students, who, thinking the district needed big changes, wanted the board to select an outsider, a Denver administrator, for the job.
Veteran board members disagreed with the community and with the two newly elected board members, saying instead that the district is on the right track and that an internal candidate would keep up the momentum.
Some community members have said in public comment that they are organizing a board recall following the decision.
The signed contract (in full below) is a two-year agreement with a possibility for an additional one-year automatic extension, unless the board were to notify Sandos of a non-renewal by March 31, 2019. The contract gives Sandos a $160,000 annual salary — less than the $161,480 Clough was making before going to part-time status. The contract also entitles Sandos to $350 per month for driving expenses, and up to $120 per month for a cellphone plan.
The district posted the notice for the weekend meeting on Saturday morning, meeting minimum requirements under the law. The agenda didn’t include time for any public comment during the meeting.
The district noted in their announcement that the board’s regularly scheduled Tuesday meeting in Sheridan was cancelled, as it was instead held Sunday morning before the annual retreat when the board was going to talk about goals for the year.
Asked why the board decided to have the regular business meeting so far from its constituents, a district spokesman said it was a unanimous decision.
“One board member works six days a week,” said district spokesman Mark Stevens. “As a result, the board settled on a Sunday and agreed unanimously on June 10. Holding a business meeting and approving the contract on Sunday allows the board to cancel a Tuesday meeting.”
Stevens added, “the superintendent contract wasn’t ready until late in the week last week.”
The two board members who had voted against the appointment of Sandos as superintendent, Karla Najera and Daniel Stange, both were late to the meeting and missed the vote on the contract. But both had previously been in contact with the remaining board and said it was okay for the board to start without them, and said they did not have objections to the contract.
The three board members in attendance at the start of the meeting all voted in support of the contract, without discussion.
Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said he struggled with the district’s justification for denying the earlier release of the contract. Roberts said waiting until Monday was not timely, and said “they could have handled it better.”
Roberts also said that while the law does not specify where governing boards should meet, he said it is rare, but not unheard of, for some governing boards to meet while out of town. School boards often have retreats in Colorado Springs while already there for other annual conferences, for instance, and in some cases have held other business meetings there. One recent example was Jeffco Public Schools, which held one of several closed-door meetings in Colorado Springs before deciding to search for a new superintendent.
Roberts said there are simple and low-cost ways boards could improve transparency when they do meet outside of their jurisdictions.
“I just think this is a transparency effort they could make,” Roberts said. “You could have used Facebook Live to stream your meeting to make sure the people back in Sheridan could see it. They can take small steps to involve the public.”
Guzman added that concern from parents and community members over the contract is valid.
“It’s our tax money that is paying for this superintendent, and it’s about our kids’ future,” Guzman said. “We want to make sure we give our kids the best opportunities and he’s our leader to do that, so we want to make sure that our input is valued.”