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

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When Sandra Smyser walked away from her role as superintendent of Poudre School District in January, it wasn’t with empty pockets. 

In what was deemed a mutually decided upon early retirement, Smyser accepted more than two years’ pay — $560,620.40, to be exact — to leave PSD’s top leadership job. Her annual salary at the time was $246,000.

“The board has concluded that a change in leadership is in the best interest of the district,” a district news release announcing her retirement in December said. “Dr. Smyser’s agreement to an early retirement illustrates her unselfishness and desire for the district to attract quality superintendent candidates.”

The early retirement came as a surprise to some in the district, but not the members on its board of education; the board voted unanimously in favor of Smyser’s departure. 

Poudre School District superintendent Sandra Smyser addresses the graduates during the Poudre High School graduation ceremony at French Field at Rocky Mountain High School Saturday, July 25, 2020. Poudre School District's graduation ceremonies were delayed and adapted to accommodate social distancing and other precautions aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19.

Now, as the district narrows its search for Smyser’s permanent replacement, the board members who voted to pay Smyser to stop working remain largely unwilling to discuss their reasoning for the decision. But records obtained by the Coloradoan show that concerns of communication and transparency mounted in Smyser’s final years leading PSD.

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Smyser’s 2020 evaluation provides some insight into the decline of her performance and relationship with the board. Her ratings decreased in 17 of 26 categories compared with the previous year, whereas ratings increased in only two categories. The remaining seven stayed the same. 

Smyser’s communication style was one of the board’s largest concerns. In 2017, the board expressed it wanted better communication and transparency, and her ratings dropped. They rose in 2019, where she scored either proficient or distinguished in every category, but in 2020 her ratings again declined. 

“The culture and environment of meetings has improved. While communication has become more solid, there is still room for improvement,” board members wrote in Smyser’s final review. “The Board feels it is sometimes difficult to understand the Superintendent’s stance or perspective and the Board would value a frank expression of views.” 

In a report presenting what the district and community are looking for in its next superintendent, someone who can “communicate frequently, clearly, and thoughtfully and listen actively and deeply” was high on the list. 

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A unanimous vote with little public discussion

At a Feb. 16 board of education retreat, board members reviewed policy language and discussed details of their superintendent search and the type of person for whom they were looking.

When the traits of transparent and communicative came up, board member Carolyn Reed recalled a time she almost had to file an open records request to get a document she said Smyser was refusing to give her, claiming it was a “disruptive” request. 

“If you’re going to take 10 hours of staff time to put something together for me, that’s disruptive,” said Reed, making the case that existing documents should be provided upon board request. 

“But if I’m asking you for a document that you don’t want me to have because it embarrasses you, that’s not disruptive,” she said, “it’s transparency.”

Reed, like a number of other board members, declined to be interviewed or answer written questions about her vote to approve Smyser’s retirement, citing legal concerns over the confidentiality of the agreement. She did say the most important trait, in her opinion, for the new district leader is that they are “very dynamic” and “can really be the face of Poudre School District.”

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The meeting called Dec. 7, 2020, for board members to approve Smyser’s retirement lasted 2 minutes and 30 seconds; footage obtained by the Coloradoan showed there was no discussion before all board members voted to approve the confidential package. 

When asked why he voted in favor of Smyser’s retirement, board president Christophe Febvre provided a written statement to the Coloradoan on behalf of all members that reiterated what was said in the district’s announcement regarding Smyser’s departure. 

“The Board of Education concluded that a change in leadership is in the best interest of the district,” wrote Febvre. The statement did not expand upon why the board concluded this, and he declined an additional request for comment.

Board member DJ Anderson echoed the statement, saying he voted yes because it was “best for our district to move forward with new leadership in 2021.”

Board member Kristen Draper said “nothing bad went down” between the board and Smyser but that she voted to approve the early retirement because she felt it would be good to have new leadership. Draper added that she was happy to see many applicants for the position who are focused on equity and diversity and strong communication. 

Directors Naomi Johnson, Nate Donovan and Rob Petterson declined to comment beyond Febvre’s statement or answer the Coloradoan’s written questions regarding their vote to approve Smyer’s early retirement.

Get involved with PSD’s search

Since the search for a new district leader was announced, the board has encouraged members of the community to get involved and share input on what they’re looking for. 

“One of the things that we’d really like to see is more engagement with PSD and nonprofits and the city and the county, and, you know, in order to do that, we really need to gauge what the community is looking for,” said Draper, encouraging community members to attend upcoming forums and ask questions.

Reed shared Draper’s stance and said “this is a position that that touches everybody in the city. And so I think it’s important that all the stakeholders get to have some kind of feedback into the selection, or at least be able to state their values.”

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To encourage community involvement in the final stages of the search, there will be two virtual forums for PSD staff and community members to meet identified superintendent finalists and ask questions. 

“It is the board’s privilege to hire a leader who will work side by side with staff, students and families to co-create the next chapter of PSD’s great history,” Febvre said. 

Finalists have not yet been named, though the board has slated to allow for anywhere from one to three. At a March 23 board meeting, Febvre said the board had selected semifinalists and will interview them this weekend.

“By the middle of April, I believe this district will know who its next superintendent will be,” Febvre said at the meeting.

The staff forum will be held virtually from 4 to 7:30 p.m. April 1, and the community forum will be held virtually from 5 to 8:30 p.m. April 2. Spanish interpretations will be available for both. For links to the events, visit the PSD superintendent search page, psdschools.org/PSDSuperintendentSearch

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.