Fewer and fewer Colorado school superintendents lately have been willing to accept one-year contracts.
The current political “volatility” of boards of education in school districts throughout the state has made it increasingly risky for the top school executives to go without multiyear commitments, says Bret Miles, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives. “The larger the system is, the more political variability there has been, the more likely a strong candidate is going to insist on a multiyear contract,” he says.
But there are “caveats” to this rule, he adds.
Michael Gaal, the new superintendent of Colorado Springs School District 11, is one of the exceptions — he’s decided to accept a one-year contract for his first year leading D11, or any school district, and the risks that come with it.
The $260,000 contract, up for renewal in February 2023, was even against the advice of Gaal’s lawyer, who advised him not to “set [him]self up” and warned of the board and community politics that could threaten his job security, Gaal told the Indy’s sister publication, the Colorado Springs Business Journal.
Gaal is confident he’ll be able to bring “immediate gains” to the district by February, including improvements in district culture, community and staff trust and in the numbers that have been top concerns in D11 for many years — declining enrollment and trailing academic achievement, he says. He’s embracing the high level of accountability that a one-year term brings, and accepts the possibility that for whatever reason, the D11 Board of Education could be done with him in just a few months.
“Whatever the paper says, to me, it doesn’t really matter,” Gaal says. “If you want me here, I want to stay here. I would love to work here the next 10 years and retire in Colorado Springs.
“If you don’t want me here, I don’t want to be here,” he says. “It’s not good for kids. If governance doesn’t think that I’m doing a good job, then I’m going to exit stage left.”
D11 is no stranger to the board politics and superintendent turnover that partisan divisions have produced over the last year.
Dr. Michael Thomas, who held Gaal’s position until March, was prompted to leave after the November 2021 El Paso County elections, when the D11 board composition shifted to a conservative majority.
The new board came in opposed to Thomas’ goals for equitable distribution of resources in the district and the focus on marginalized groups of students who need additional support to meet academic standards. They were goals the previous board knew well — and specifically hired Thomas for in 2018 — the Indy reported when Thomas left.
Thomas told the Indy at the time that it was the political divisions, “public meltdowns and fighting” that turned the D11 board-superintendent relationship into an unhealthy one, and ultimately led him to leave.
More recently, two top executives in neighboring District 49, which covers the northeast end of the city, also resigned, citing similar issues with their own conservative board members’ political posturing and lack of decorum.
D49 operated on a “three-chief model,” an alternative to the superintendent model, with executives in charge of education, business and operations. But with the recent resignations of Chief Business Officer Brett Ridgway and Chief Operations Officer Pedro Almeida, the D49 board promoted Peter Hilts — who himself has worked under one-year contracts with the district for a decade — to sole chief executive officer.
There’s always been superintendent turnover in the state, but up to this point, it’s mostly been attributable to retirements and leaders seeking positions with bigger school systems and salaries, says Miles of CASE, an advocacy organization that serves about 3,300 public school administrators in nearly all Colorado districts.
“It’s only recently where we really say, ‘Wow, I can’t see a reason that this happened, other than a political change at the local board,’” Miles says.
As a result, when he talks with superintendents considering contracts, one of the first things he asks about is the terms — “it’s in the conversation much more so than it used to be,” says Miles, who took his first Colorado superintendent position in 2003.
Multiyear contracts ensure school boards have “some skin in the game,” mostly in a financial sense, Miles says. Board members don’t want to be going to their community, and electorate, every year to justify why they are paying out a superintendent who no longer works for the district — as they likely would be if they walk away from a multiyear superintendent contract, he says.
At the same time, a one-year superintendent term, in D11’s case, ensures that the district won’t be paying out on another multiple-year contract cut short, if they decide Gaal’s not a good fit.
Thomas’ contract was meant to last until June 2024, according to the contract document from his last renewal in July 2021. He’ll now be getting paid by D11 well into 2023, as his “mutual separation agreement” with the district ensured he’d receive his base salary of $295,815 for 14 months starting in May 2021.
Gaal acknowledged that there’s a trend of superintendent payouts across the country and “that the district has felt challenged in how it moves on from previous leadership,” he says. It takes funding away from areas where it’s really needed, Gaal added.
“When you look at the individual needs of teachers and/or staff in a district where there’s rising costs of living, there’s inflation and we’re not keeping pace with salaries, and then [the board says] that much money went to somebody that’s not here — you’re losing your own credibility for your argument,” he says.
It was after a “decade of incredible chaos” in D49, stemming from multiple board composition changes following elections, when that district’s board started to operate on one-year contracts. Its new top executive, Hilts, said after his 10th contract renewal earlier this year he is the longest-serving “superintendent” in the region.
“We call it the decade of dysfunction, and that was basically … the first 10 years of the millennium, where they had multiple cycles of a board hiring a superintendent, that board then changing composition, firing the superintendent, paying them a severance package, hiring a new separate superintendent,” Hilts told the Business Journal. “Rinse, lather, repeat.
“They did that enough times that the community was kind of sick of it; the board was kind of sick of it,” he says. “There was a strong desire to get out of that pattern.”
This dysfunctional period is also the reason that D49 moved to the three-chief model — although Hilts says it first started with two chief officers — a unique leadership structure in the state that looks more like the way some businesses are run. Miles says he doesn’t know of any other Colorado school district that operates under a multi-chief model.
Hilts, who was an education consultant for D49 at the time the model was introduced, and helped design it, says it was a “positive, innovative form of disruption that the district seemed to really need.”
“In a hospital setting, you might have a chief medical officer next to a chief executive or chief operating officer, and they partner in their various areas of responsibility,” Hilts says. “So it’s a really well-proven business model. And in 2010, the D49 board was interested in applying business principles to education.”
But now, D49 is considering shifting away from the model permanently. The D49 board will at least revisit whether it still serves the district well, hiring a consultant to help them do so, after the resignations of the two other chiefs, Board President John Graham told the Indy recently.
There are certainly ways for superintendents to measure and prove their worth to boards of education in just one year, Hilts argues — even in enrollment numbers.
School executive contracts are “a projection about [their] future performance,” he says. Short-term enrollment metrics, like the number of new kindergarten students a district can attract, is one way to measure future enrollment, since well-performing schools are “likely going to lock that student in for multiple years.”
Retention, however — whether that student does stay in a district for the long haul rather than choicing into another district later on — is measured over multiple years, Hilts says.
Gaal says increasing pre-kindergarten enrollment in D11 schools is going to be a particular focus for his first year. If the district can improve and get more children in its high-demand preschools, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to keep those same kids in D11 for kindergarten, he says.
In fact, D11 had a waitlist for preschool last year, and one goal for the 2022-23 school year is to “zero” that out, Gaal says.
“We’re a district that is under-enrolled or decreasing enrollment every year, and yet we had more demand in certain parts of the city in certain schools that we could facilitate for pre-K,” he says. “It’ll be a rolling enrollment all year long, [and] any parent that wants to come to pre-K within District 11, we will find them a solution.
“We’re hoping for a 6 percent increase on the early-ed side and elementary,” he says.
And Gaal would like to cut the declining enrollment in D11 middle and high schools this year by 6 percent.
In grades 6 and 7, enrollment declined by 5 percent and 6 percent, respectively, from 2021 to 2022, and enrollment in grades 11 and 12 also declined by 5 and 6 percent, respectively, over the same period, according to an analysis of data from the School Enrollment Project, a collaboration of The New York Times, the Colorado News Collaborative, EdSource and Stanford University Graduate School of Education.
“There’s a lot of bleed-out in the system,” Gaal says.
One way he’s already started to address this is by establishing an “area superintendent” structure that Gaal describes as principals building stronger connections within their “cluster” of schools, and thinking of them more as feeders into one another.
“I do believe that there will be stronger relationships between elementary, middle and high school leaders, which creates a natural opportunity for parents to see themselves flowing through the system,” Gaal says. “That’s great that families are able to choose what best suits them. What I want to do is make sure that a child who enters our program in pre-K sees a clear path to get all the way to 12th grade.”