Bentley Rayburn stands tall on Sand Creek High School's stage, his silver hair gleaming, his suit impeccable.
"My first priority would be kids," he says, pausing for emphasis. "My second priority would be kids. My third priority would be kids."
He settles his engaging gaze on the crowd, confident, like a Thespian Club star giving his final, definitive performance before moving on to the sunnier pastures of university stages.
It's easy to see why Rayburn tried politics after retiring as an Air Force general. Less apparent is why he's pursuing the top post in Falcon School District 49.
It starts at home
On the evening of May 21, about 50 people settled in for the last of two "community meetings" with D-49's four quickly selected finalists for superintendent. Rayburn's competitors — D-11 deputy superintendent Mike Poore and out-of-towners Donna Howell and Bradley Schoeppey — have worked for decades in K-through-12 education. They were all teachers before moving into administration. Some coached, other worked with kids in church youth groups or scouting ventures.
Granted, their histories aren't spotless. Howell took a $270,000 buyout of her last superintendency in Steamboat Springs, Schoeppey and Poore have butted heads with charters, and Poore led the controversial D-11 effort to close underused schools. But all have bragging points:
• Within two years (2003-05) as superintendent, Poore led the Sheridan School District in escaping the Colorado Academic Watch List.
• Howell instituted an Asian language and immersion program in one of her districts.
• Schoeppey led an innovative program for 4-year-olds in Oklahoma.
Rayburn has no work experience in children's education, so he talked about military units while others talked about school districts. He described leading military personnel through master's degree programs when others spoke of connecting with young children. And when his competition discussed turning around a failing school or harnessing a rowdy middle school classroom, Rayburn recalled his own childhood, that of his children, or his recent volunteer work with Young Life, a Christian ministry for teens.
"All of our experiences come first and foremost from our own children," Rayburn said, apparently referring to himself and his wife.
As a parent, Rayburn didn't say he'd spent time volunteering in public schools. Rather, he said, he at least partially home-schooled each of his four kids.
So isn't it strange that Rayburn, with political ambitions that fueled two campaigns for Colorado's 5th Congressional District seat — both lost to Rep. Doug Lamborn — would want to be D-49's leader? Its eighth in six years, no less?
"It's a recent trend, 'recent' being beginning maybe as far as 10 years ago," says Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "The wave of nontraditional superintendents, people coming from the business, the military, or the political side to take over school systems, [is] very popular in the large urban districts."
That would include the nation's largest school system in New York City, led by Joel Klein, a former assistant attorney general, media CEO and deputy counsel to President Bill Clinton.
Until recently, the nation's second-largest school operation, Los Angeles Unified School District, was led by retired Navy Vice Admiral David Brewer. It had previously been headed by former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer.
Chicago Public Schools is led by Ron Huberman, former Chicago Transit Authority president and ex-chief of staff for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. Prior to that, Chicago's schools were led by Arne Duncan, now U.S. secretary of Education, another man who'd never taught a class.
In Colorado, newly appointed U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet is an obvious example. In about five years, Bennet went from businessman to Denver Public Schools superintendent to U.S. senator.
The D-49 difference
And yet Rayburn's bid is unique, because D-49 is not New York City. D-49 is a district of 20 schools and 13,600 students, in a suburban and rural community dealing with growing pains — not to mention controversy, which could mean its entire school board being overturned in a November election. With money needed to expand and build schools, D-49's coffers are regularly depleted.
And that, Domenech notes, might put a damper on nontraditional leadership.
"In an L.A., in a Chicago, in a New York City, a Philadelphia," he notes, "the system is so huge that these individuals have many assistants, and many deputies, and many individuals that fill the ranks. So they basically bring in a chief academic officer who is a traditional educator to run the instructional side, and they tend to dedicate themselves primarily to the business and political side of the operation.
"That tends not to be the case in smaller districts, where you don't have that kind of a central office staff, and where you basically have to be the instructional leader. And if you don't have a background in education, then you can't be the instructional leader. And that means you have another person to duplicate that. And in a smaller district, basically, to have two people receiving a substantial salary to do the same job doesn't make sense."
Of course, that doesn't mean D-49's board won't go its own way. So don't count Rayburn out.