The two finalists for Douglas County School District’s vacant superintendent job spent Thursday afternoon making their case for why they should lead the district, each fielding questions from the Board of Education that ranged from school safety to the polarization that is permeating the district.
It was the first time the public has heard from the two candidates – Erin Kane and Danny Winsor – and their vision for the district, which has spent the past month in some degree of turmoil amid the ouster of the former superintendent, allegations of open-meeting law violations and protests.
Both Kane and Winsor are long-time leaders in the school district, which serves more than 63,000 students.
Kane, whose potential appointment was considered weeks before finalists were announced, has an engineering background and led the district for two years as interim superintendent during another divisive period when the district was at the center of the school reforms movement.
“I thought (trust) was really important in 2016 when we had a similar situation of conflict and I think it’s actually even more critical today to begin to build trust,” Kane told the seven-member school board. “ I think for starters we need to be honest about each other’s intentions and really listen to each other.”
Winsor has more of traditional education background, having previously worked as a teacher, school counselor, coach and principal. He currently serves as the district’s executive director of schools for the Parker region.
“My job is to work for our community,” Winsor said. “My job is to work for our teachers. My job is to work for our students.”
Whoever is selected as superintendent must lead a district that is deeply divided on issues ranging from COVID-19 policies, equity and education reform, and they will have to do so at a time when schools nationwide are still reeling from the effects of the pandemic.
The public health crisis, which began two years ago, widely disrupted learning and has left teachers burned out and students struggling with its social and emotional toll. Statewide K-12 schools are also preparing for possible budget cuts in the next couple of years as they expect to receive less money as enrollment continues to decline.
The school board is conducting the search for a superintendent after firing Corey Wise without cause last month, an action that sparked protests by hundreds of teachers and students. The decision to terminate Wise’s contract before it expired in two years was led by the four newly-elected directors, who have said they did not feel supported by him and wanted to take the district in a new direction.
The school board has set an aggressive timeline for hiring a new superintendent, condensing a process that typically takes many months into a search that may be completed by the end of March.
Erin Kane is a familiar face
By the time Kane sat down for her interview on Thursday, much had already been written in the news and social media about her politics — she said she does not believe arming teachers or school vouchers were right for Douglas County School District — and ties to the four majority members on the school board.
Kane, executive director of schools for American Academy, was asked to apply for the job by board president Mike Peterson, which is reminiscent of when former board member Meghann Silverthorn called her in 2016 to see if she would consider becoming interim superintendent.
Back then, the district needed to quickly find a leader after former Superintendent Liz Fagen, whose tenure included the controversial voucher program and high teacher turnover, resigned. But the board was divided and an election was approaching so it seemed prudent to appoint an interim superintendent and leave the permanent search for later, Silverthorn said.
“(Kane) cared about the district and about students and it showed,” she said. “The politics aside, most people felt she really wanted success for everyone. She knew what needed to be done to improve the environment and set about it in a methodical way.”
Kane emphasized her time as interim superintendent during her interview, saying that while in the role she reduced staff turnover and found money to redirect to schools “by making things as skinny as we could” in the central administration offices.
If she is appointed superintendent, Kane said she would empower teachers and work to bring back students who left the district during the pandemic.
Kane has support among the conservative members of the school board, including Christy Williams, vice president of the board, who previously said that her children attend the schools Kane oversees.
A Parker resident named Erin Kane also donated to each of the four conservative directors who were elected in November, giving $50 each to the campaigns of Peterson, Kaylee Winegar and Becky Myers last year. She also gave $150 to Williams’ campaign, according to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office.
Kane acknowledged she is a Republican, saying “Everybody, as individuals, have some kind of position in terms of politics and I think that’s fine.”
But, she said, “I don’t see a role for that in leading a school district. I think ideology is entering this way too much, particularly right now. I have always considered myself to be extremely centered.”
Winsor has worked in both Douglas County School District and nearby Cherry Creek School District. He was a school counselor at Smoky Hill High School for five years before resigning in 2008 “for other employment,” said spokeswoman Abbe Smith.
“I’m a dad in (Douglas County School District) as well too,” Winsor told the school board. “I have three amazing kiddos in this district.”
Winsor’s experience as an educator makes him a “qualified candidate,” said Kevin DiPasquale, president of the Douglas County Federation, the teacher’s union.
“He has the educational experience and knowledge that would help him to try to correct some of the recent transgressions,” he said, adding, “(Winsor) at least has the trust and the support of a lot of the school community and the community at large.”
Winsor, during his interview, stressed the need to build connections between families, teachers and students in the district.
“As a former school principal, it was my greatest responsibility to make sure I connected with every single one of my kids every day,” he said. “I also felt it was my responsibility to connect with every one of my families and be accessible for our families.”
The emphasis on connections extended to Winsor’s answer about his thoughts on school safety, with him saying, “When a kid walks into a building if they don’t feel safe they can’t learn.”
“There’s a physical safety side of things of what you are providing as a building, then there’s also the mental health and connections and a belongingness that a student feels when they walk into their school,” Winsor said.
Winsor did not make any campaign contributions during the last election, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
Winsor said that he believes parents need to have a voice, but that the district as a whole needs to better understand the problems they are working to address.
“The soul of this community wants to see our students be successful,” he said. “I think we’re getting stuck on how we all want it to look.”
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