Into the minefield 

D-11s new superintendent to take office under fire

click to enlarge District 11s new Superintendent Sharon Thomas takes - over in July. Will she still be around come November?
  • District 11s new Superintendent Sharon Thomas takes over in July. Will she still be around come November?

Sharon Thomas, the new School District 11 superintendent, will learn what it's like to work with a guillotine hanging over her head this summer -- but at least she'll be paid well to do so.

Last Thursday, the Board of Education in Colorado Springs' largest school district approved a three-year contract for Thomas, giving her a $170,000 annual salary and up to $100,000 in annual benefits. Thomas replaces Norm Ridder, who left the district and its bitterly divided board last month to become a superintendent in Missouri.

Three members of the seven-member school board -- Eric Christen, Craig Cox and Willie Breazell -- were not present to vote on Thomas' contract. And they have been clear that they did not want to hire Ridder's replacement until after board elections in November, when they hope to regain a majority of like-minded thinkers. The three men, who were elected two years ago, are pro-voucher and pro-charter school and routinely offer scathing criticism of the district they oversee.

Christen appeared at last week's meeting after the vote to approve Thomas' contract and verbalized his opposition to the superintendent search and appointment process. He also has spoken explicitly about firing Thomas after the November elections.

In a telephone interview from Little Falls, Minn., where she has been serving as superintendent, Thomas said she recognizes that the board's battles might present hardships. Still, she said taking the job "was worth it."

"I don't get to pick the board," she said. When asked about the fact that she could be yanked out of the job come November, she said, "It's just part of the territory ... it's always a possibility."

She starts work here on July 1.

Trench warfare politics

Thomas knows what she's getting into. After all, she has a long history with D-11, where she began to work in 1984 as an assistant principal. She moved up to principal and then personnel director dealing with labor relations. She left the district and earned a law degree from the University of Denver in the 1990s, then returned to serve as the district's legal counsel on and off for seven years before leaving for Minnesota.

She said that in addition to the trench warfare politics on the board, she is aware of what she calls the district's biggest problem: declining enrollment. "We'll have to work through it as best we can," she said.

Thomas was circumspect regarding roiling controversies and legal disputes in district schools. When asked about the issues of whether to invite Planned Parenthood to offer sex education, and whether to allow students to form a Gay-Straight Alliance, she said, "I'm not looking to upset [Ridder's] decisions."

Odds in her favor

As for Thomas holding onto her job, some community observers give her good odds. "She can hit the ground running," said Mary Ellen McNally, Chairwoman of Friends of District 11. "[Getting fired] is not even on her list of problems."

Other observers are deeply troubled by Christen's threat to ax the super before she's had a chance to prove her mettle. "If you terminate an excellent superintendent, you have to ask why," said Norvell Simpson, who served on the district's board from 1975 to 1985 and has lived here since 1968. "I'm very concerned the whole thing is about vouchers.

"Give her a chance," he said. "My prayer is that she can show that if we work together as a team, the board, the staff and the community can weather these storms."

-- Dan Wilcock


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