Fort Collins community gets chance to question PSD superintendent candidates

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Poudre School District’s three superintendent finalists spent another night fielding questions, this time from the community regarding equity and diversity, school choice and how they would improve the district’s relationship with community partners. 

More than 60 PSD parents and Fort Collins community members tuned in Friday evening to learn more about the finalists – Jonathan Cooper, Brian Kingsley and Heather Sanchez – and their stances on hot topics in the district. Each candidate received about an hour of screen time to field questions and introduce themselves to the community.

Cooper is superintendent of Mason City Schools in Warren County, Ohio. Sanchez is executive director of schools for the Bellevue School District in Bellevue, Washington. Kingsley is chief academic officer of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The Coloradoan has summarized each candidate’s answers on the questions, grouped by similar topics.

PSD staff forum:Participants grill superintendent finalists 

Equity, diversity and inclusion

Each candidate’s session had a number of questions on equity, diversity and inclusion, ranging from how they could close achievement gaps to the candidates’ reactions to the board’s recent statement of support for transgender students on the transgender day of visibility. 

“I support it. And I’m unapologetic about it,” Kingsley said in response to the board’s statement of support. “If you’re a parent, you are sending your most prized possessions into our care each and every day, and you want us to uphold them with honor, with trust and with respect, and making sure that we’re honoring people for who they are is incredibly important.”

Sanchez said as both a professional and the mother of a member of the LGBTQ+ community, “gender diversity rights are part of basic human rights.”

She said her current district has worked on overhauls of bathrooms and locker rooms in favor of gender equity and is working to allow students to change preferred pronouns in records. 

She added that while she is proud of her stance and beliefs, she understands “people are on a continuum of understanding around gender diverse students, and it does nobody any good to be hostile with one another about it” and asked that people acknowledge there are different opinions.

Cooper was supportive of the statement of support for transgender students, saying he’s “in support of all students, whether it’s the LGBTQ+ population in our school district or it’s any group.”

He cautioned that support should be shown wisely and that impact versus intent should be considered when showing support so there are no “unintentional impacts on our kids.”

More:Schools saw big learning losses last year. Here’s what PSD is doing to combat it.

Inclusion efforts related to race and socio-economic status were also discussed. 

Kingsley said inclusivity of all kinds in schools is “incredibly important.” To build an inclusive culture, he said the district needs exemplary leadership and the community needs to work together.

“It’s not just about diversity,” he said, noting that sometimes diversity is just checking boxes and counting people. He said equity matters and part of building inclusive leadership “is making sure that all children have access to great teaching.” Kingsley also reminded listeners of his “track record of success” in lowering achievement gaps in previous districts.

Cooper said he takes a “community-sourced” approach to addressing equity and diversity.

“What I mean by that is leaning into the community and tapping into the talent, to the desires of the community,” he said. “It’s a public school, so it should have the public voice as the co-creator of the future and whatever that shared vision is for the district.”

He said systemic change doesn’t just happen at a leadership level, but throughout the whole organization and “it really comes down to setting up the systems and bringing representation to the table and making sure that we’re honoring that.”

Sanchez addressed equity in her opening statements, saying from the start that “access to quality education is a right, not a privilege.” She later said equity, diversity and inclusion is her “north star” and that a sense of belonging is key for students to be comfortable in schools. An acknowledgement of the systemic problems in Pre-K-12 education – that it has “long been steeped in systems of oppression” – is also important in addressing equity, Sanchez said. 

She added that she has a history of “chipping away at” opportunity gaps for students of color. 

Incorporating teacher voice 

Many candidates reiterated points they made in Thursday night’s session on this topic, especially with regard to collective bargaining. 

Kingsley, who doesn’t have experience working with unions because North Carolina is a right-to-work state, said he would operationalize the teacher voice by being “in deep dialogue and being present in our schools.” He also noted that all employees need to be at the table, though, not just teachers. 

He said in his current district he felt expectations for teachers were raised during the Great Recession but were never properly funded. At PSD, he said, he would want to give teachers the resources to meet the district goals.

Cooper said as “a teacher at heart,” he “would always be willing to work with our teachers in terms of collective bargaining.” He said supporting teachers and what they feel is necessary is important to him and has been something he’s worked hard to do throughout the pandemic in his current district. 

More:PSD paid Sandra Smyser $560K to retire early. Why? Board members still won’t say.

Sanchez again said that “the most important factor in student outcome is the teacher” and what happens in the classroom. Because of that, she said that “if we want students to be successful, teachers need to be successful.” 

Sanchez said in terms of bargaining, she is a proponent of interest-based bargaining because a common goal allows for more effective problem-solving strategies and she prefers to address problems as they rise to the surface before they erupt.

Improving relationships with the community 

A number of questions asked Friday night criticized former superintendent Sandra Smyser, saying she did not form good relationships with local businesses and entities. All candidates were asked how they would improve this relationship and grow the district’s partnership with the community.

Kingsley said he would mend the rift between PSD and the community businesses by “getting out of my office and shaking hands.” He said he believes his role as a “community-driven leader” is part of why he’s a finalist, and becoming a stronger community partner with higher education institutions, nonprofits and businesses would be a priority for him. 

Sanchez said the number of times she’d heard this question in her research shows that it is of high priority for the PSD community, and feels she’s prepared to fix the relationships. She said Fort Collins has a “treasure trove” of partners and it will be “critical” that the incoming superintendent can “partner effectively with the community.”

More:Charter schools grow in popularity with PSD families amid COVID-19

Cooper said a community relationship is necessary and a “pre-K-12 organization should be the beacon that brings the community together.” In his current role, he said he works with city chamber, government and the mayor regularly to make sure they’re all “walking in the same direction.” 

He promised that, if hired for the position, “you will see a dramatic change in terms of the partnership that happens” between the district and its community. 

Approaching budgets … and budget cuts

When asked about how they would deal with potential budget cuts, or if they have dealt with them in the past, all candidates said budget cuts are a real concern. 

Kingsley said he has “great experience” in managing budgets, and like many districts, his current one is facing cuts due to the pandemic. He said when he was faced with making cuts, he took an approach of making sure that they continued to “provide essential services to families” while attempting to mitigate the impact on employees by looking for other employment opportunities in the district. He said he was ultimately able to bring on about 80 people in a different role than they previously held.

“Budget conflicts and budget scenarios are incredibly difficult,” he said. “What I can promise you is I’m going to lead with transparency.”

Sanchez said she just finished wrapping up conversations about her current district’s budget projections for next year. She said they, of course, will not have unlimited funding so they had to discuss what efforts aligned with key initiatives.

“If we know that we’re not going to get sufficient funding from the state that we need, we’ve got to think outside of the box, in terms of what is it we really want our students to have access to,” she said. 

Cooper shared a time a few years ago when his district faced large budget cuts that would have impacted bus drivers, school sports, class sizes and teacher employment. He said the district was able to work through them and raise money to prevent them from happening but that in some situations he had to negotiate short-term solutions and compromise. He also said his district’s budget shows how they have prioritized work to address equity in the classroom.

What’s next?

The board of education is allowing attendees of the Thursday and Friday forums to leave feedback and ask questions of the candidates. The feedback links can be found at the PSD superintendent search page at www.psdschools.org/PSDSuperintendentSearch and must be submitted by 9:59 p.m. April 10 to be considered. 

At 6 p.m. April 6, the board of education will conduct public interviews of each finalist. This event will be in person for the board and candidates but is not open to the in-person public. A link to stream the interview will be shared before Tuesday. 

Molly Bohannon covers education for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @molboha or contact her at mbohannon@coloradoan.com. Support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.