School & District Management

Colorado Schools Chief, Local Superintendents Spar Over Role of State

By Michele McNeil — October 03, 2006 5 min read
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Colorado’s 178 district superintendents are embroiled in a polite yet pointed debate with Commissioner of Education William J. Moloney and the state school board over the state’s role in helping districts raise student achievement.

School districts and education departments in most other states face similar questions as they grapple with the pressures of accountability, which the federal No Child Left Behind Act has heightened. But in Colorado, the debate has escalated.

In what they’ve called an unprecedented show of unity, the superintendents there banded together last spring and presented a “white paper” to Mr. Moloney and the eight-member board of education, calling for more inclusion in decisionmaking, better leadership, more service to local districts, and less bureaucracy.

Local Grievances

Colorado district superintendents wrote a white paper expressing their concerns to state Commissioner of Education William J. Moloney and the Colorado board of education.

A Call for State Leadership—Colorado Superintendents Speak Out

“A growing consensus of superintendents believes state-level leaders must become far more proactive in helping to create a state environment where schools and districts can be successful with all students.”

“Every effort should be made to minimize bureaucratic reports that require schools and districts to direct scarce resources toward duplicative administrative tasks in lieu of sending support to the classroom.”

“State-level leaders should advocate for all schools, not just schools of choice.”

“Education agencies in other states are recognizing that they must develop a service orientation rather than continue a primarily regulatory orientation.”

SOURCE: Colorado Association of School Executives

In response, the state formed a commissioner- superintendent advisory council, made up of five to seven superintendents from different regions who are to begin meeting regularly with Mr. Moloney later this month.

“The state was shaping policy without information from the districts about how that impact would be felt,” said Mary Barter, the superintendent of the 5,000-student Durango school district. “Absent more input, the districts will fall more and more distant from the commissioner and the state board of education. It’s not that we’re trying to block reform, we’re trying to help shape it.”

But whether there will be any big changes in how the education department operates is questionable, and there likely won’t be a resolution any time soon.

There’s even been some disagreement between the commissioner and local superintendents about how many local leaders should attend the advisory council meetings.

Growing Frustration

Commissioner Moloney, a former district-level superintendent himself, says he understands where local leaders are coming from, but the strings attached to federal and state education funding leave him little room to change.

“Departments used to be sleepy bureaucracies. Suddenly, they’re judge and jury,” said Mr. Moloney, 65, who was appointed by the state board in 1997 and has an open-ended contract. “With this, you began to have a shift from nonintrusive service and support to a very intrusive regulatory agent.” He added that federal money wasn’t sent to the state for the purpose of providing service.

In many states, the root of the tension between education departments and school districts rests with the No Child Left Behind law, said Reggie Felton, the director of federal relations for the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association. States developed accountability plans to follow the law with little input from local districts, he said.

Under the 4½-year-old law, schools must show adequate yearly progress, as measured by state testing programs, toward bringing all students to academic proficiency.

“Now state boards are frustrated, and local school boards are frustrated that the state isn’t delivering service it needs,” Mr. Felton said.

In Colorado, the 178 school districts are diverse, spread across the state’s 1,004 square miles and ranging from the urban, 85,000-student Denver public schools to the 125-student Pawnee district in rural northeastern Colorado. Though the districts have vastly different needs, they agree on their frustrations, which they outlined in May in the eight-page paper, called “A Call for State Leadership—Colorado Superintendents Speak Out.”

District leaders say they are fed up with being left out of conversations about state policy, such as new science standards that are being developed this year. They’ve been buried underneath a sea of data and reporting requirements, many of which they say are redundant.

They also believe that when there’s a dispute between a regular public school and a charter school, the state usually favors its 110 charter schools.

And the superintendents are tired of the Colorado Department of Education acting chiefly as a regulator, when what the local leaders say they really need is assistance—such as curriculum advice—to help meet the demands of accountability and tougher standards.

“We felt like we need more advocacy, more vision, and more collaboration,” said Cynthia Stevenson, the superintendent in Denver, who helped jump-start the statewide effort by her fellow district schools chiefs.

For rural districts, the white paper is a plea for help.

“We would appreciate a model curriculum we could use in our classrooms, or some help with English-language learners, but we’re not getting it,” said Bret Miles, the superintendent of the 1,450-student Brush district in northeastern Colorado.

Underlying Issues

Though Mr. Moloney routinely met with district leaders even before the paper was presented, the local superintendents say they felt as if they weren’t accomplishing much in those meetings.

“I don’t think we’ve gotten to the point where dialogue has even occurred,” said John Hefty, the executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, which helped organize the presentation in May to the state board and the commissioner.

As in any relationship, the district-state disagreement is complicated by underlying issues.

One is historical: Traditionally, Colorado public schools have enjoyed a tremendous amount of local control. Superintendents have seen that authority slip away with new state and federal accountability standards.

Another is the commissioner himself. Mr. Moloney hasn’t been the most popular schools chief, and over the summer was the subject of an online petition drive led by the nonprofit advocacy group ProgressNowAction to get him to resign.

Mr. Moloney still has the state board’s support, said Randy DeHoff, a Republican who was elected to the Colorado board of education in 1998. “There are a few out there who really wish the [state education] department would just go away,” Mr. DeHoff said.

Mr. DeHoff said that local superintendents could be more involved and informed if they paid closer attention to state board meetings, and read regular memos sent to them by the department.

But both Mr. DeHoff and Mr. Moloney acknowledge that communication could improve between the state and local administrators. They also say they are working on issues such as streamlining data collection.

“Nothing they said to us hit us as an ‘oh my God, we never heard that before,’ ” Mr. Moloney said of the district chiefs’ complaints. “But I am a state commissioner of education. It is the Colorado state board of education. Our constituents are all of the children and all of the families.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2006 edition of Education Week as Colorado Schools Chief, Local Superintendents Spar Over Role of State

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