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Clear Creek school board fires superintendent

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Lancaster ousted on two separate votes amid friction with teachers

By Ian Neligh

Clear Creek Schools Superintendent Todd Lancaster was fired on a split vote at the school board's May 20 meeting, and the sentiment for ousting Lancaster became unanimous at a hastily scheduled executive session three days later. 

Lancaster and the board had been at odds at times over some issues, but that friction apparently had grown to include teachers disgruntled over changes planned in the district's administrative structure. 

After a 3-2 vote at the May 20 board meeting to dismiss Lancaster — with no clear reason given for the action — the board then decided unanimously last Friday to fire the superintendent "for cause." 

The second vote came after the board obtained additional legal advice and decided to clarify that Lancaster was being fired for a specific reason. That reason, however, is unknown, as board members said their attorney advised them not to discuss the personnel issue.

School board President Jeanne Biggs said the decision wasn't made "overnight," and that the board had worked with the Colorado Association of School Boards regarding superintendent-board relationships.

"This was a very tough decision for the board," Biggs said. "So we've done about all we could do."

Lancaster said he had no idea his dismissal was in the works and was taken by surprise by the board's decision. Lancaster said he believed the board fired him over personality conflicts and controversy over the administrative changes he was proposing, such as combining the high school and middle school principal positions.

Board members Mitch Houston and Peter Monson voted against terminating Lancaster's contract on May 20, while Kevin Kuharic, Kathleen O'Leary and Biggs voted in favor. When reached, Kuharic wouldn't comment on his reasons for wanting to remove Lancaster.

Lancaster said he was told he was being fired because he didn't have the trust of the middle- and high-school teachers.

"So, from my point of view, the only reason they dismissed me was because three people thought that I wasn't listening to the teachers," Lancaster said.

Between 75 and 100 attended the May 20 meeting in large part because of a discussion Lancaster was bringing to the board about ending the contract of current business manager Willie Leslie, a topic Lancaster said he discussed with the board for two months and felt he had members’ support.

Lancaster wouldn't comment on his reasons for wanting to fire Leslie, saying discussions were held during a previous executive session. 

Biggs said the district will eventually begin a search to replace Lancaster but will appoint an interim superintendent from within the district.

It was unclear whether the termination will affect a planned overhaul of the school district's administrative structure that would create teacher-leaders and combine the middle- and high-school principal positions, changes championed by Lancaster but opposed by some teachers.

"A (final) decision was never made on that to begin with," Biggs said, not elaborating further. "So everything is still in the planning stages." 

"(Lancaster) did some very good things for the district, and we will continue to pursue many of those things," Biggs said. "We're not going to let the district fall behind. We're just going to keep on pushing forward."

John Enochs, president of the Georgetown Community School board of directors, said he was unhappy with the Clear Creek board’s decision to fire Lancaster. Enochs and Lancaster had hammered out an agreement to extend the GCS charter, and he said it appeared the two boards would have to start over.

Lancaster was hired in 2012 for $100,000 annually and replaced Jeff Miller, who became superintendent in 2010 and was the fifth superintendent in eight years. 

Before Miller, Bill Patterson was superintendent for two years before resigning for health reasons. Prior to Patterson was Jake Dingman, who was in the position for one year; Doug Price, who developed health issues after a year due to the high altitude; and Mike Greek, who was superintendent for nearly two years.

Friction

Lancaster said his proposed administrative changes were based on last year's $60,000 Comprehensive Appraisal for District Improvement study, which was to be used as a roadmap for improving and strengthening the district overall, but specifically to upgrade educational practices and student achievement.

"The superintendent is primarily responsible for the school getting there, and I need to try to take people along, but the board and the teachers have the responsibility for doing it, too," Lancaster said. "What I saw was certain board members backing down from meeting the CADI (improvements) and being more concerned about the adult complaints about the process or what it would take to meet the CADI."

Lancaster said several teachers went out of their way to put up roadblocks to the proposed changes. As an example, he cited a May survey by the Teachers Communication Committee; one teacher said the best thing done in 2014 was, "The faculty really came together to thwart (Lancaster's) initiatives."

"Many of the teachers have been resistant, many of the teachers have been unwilling to cooperate, and many teachers have actively tried to 'thwart' these activities," Lancaster said. "There's going to be natural friction, but to actually be opposing, or at least not offering, viable alternatives … I think is unprofessional, irresponsible and is not in the best interests of the kids."

Reaction 

Bob Judge, a previous school board president, attended the May 20 meeting and said he pleaded with the board and Lancaster for reconciliation, and stressed the importance of continuing down the restructuring path. Judge said he didn't think Lancaster was perfect during his time with the district, but neither was the school board or staff.

"The idea of terminating the superintendent was a surprise to everyone," Judge said. "Apparently the board was working behind the scenes on it, or certain members of the board were, and just kind of surprised everybody with it. That just caught everybody off guard."

Judge said that during his eight years on the board, the district had six superintendents.

"The idea of trying to lead an organization and move an organization forward, whether it be a school district or any organization, when you have continual turnover in leadership, it just doesn't happen," Judge said.

Former county commissioner Kevin O'Malley, who was a school board member for nearly six years, also attended the meeting.

"I think they set the district back at least two, probably three years," O'Malley said of the board's decision, "at a time when we don't have the time to be set back again because of the circumstances with the recent superintendents' (departures)."

O'Malley said the departures caused the district to lose direction and consistency.

"I do know if you make a decision that is going to bring about changes, you have to expect that you're going to get pushback from the people who have to implement those changes," O'Malley said. 

O'Malley said there are always people in a "broken system" who don't think the system is broken and don't want to change.

"And leadership is either persuading those folks to change or helping them find other employment, because that's your job," O'Malley said. "It is not to make people happy. Your job is to fix what had been determined to be broken, and that's what the administration and Lancaster were doing. … I believe they made the wrong decision. … The replacement, whomever they hire — they better hit a home run."

The board's next regularly scheduled meeting is a June 12 work session.