Douglas County Schools

Douglas County School District: Focus turns to Fagen's legacy, successor

Following Fagen's decision to leave, community members speak out on the role of superintendent

Posted 5/26/16

Douglas County School District Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen's decision to leave Colorado to take the same position in Humble, Texas, a district of 39,000 students outside Houston, has sparked …

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Douglas County Schools

Douglas County School District: Focus turns to Fagen's legacy, successor

Following Fagen's decision to leave, community members speak out on the role of superintendent


Douglas County School District Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen's decision to leave Colorado to take the same position in Humble, Texas, a district of 39,000 students outside Houston, has sparked communitywide discussion about her legacy and who will replace her.

Fagen, hired by the Douglas County school board in 2010, said in a May 24 email to district staff she expects to leave by mid-July.

There has been a mixed reaction to her appointment in Humble. A petition protesting her hiring received 2,000 signatures online as of May 26. Meanwhile, parents and community members in Douglas County posted dozens of anti-Fagen comments on the Humble school district's Facebook page.

On May 25, the Humble district put out a letter defending the hire.

"Our School Board was well informed on all aspects related to Dr. Fagen's candidacy," the letter from Robert Sitton, Humble school board president, reads. "We are aware of the posts from Colorado on our district's social media page last night and today. We have reviewed the posts, and we want you to know that none of the comments posted were a surprise to us, as we have done extensive research on all seven of our superintendent candidates, including Dr. Liz Fagen."

Fagen's legacy

In Douglas County, parents and educators are reflecting on the impact of Fagen's six years at the helm of the district, which is Colorado's third largest with about 67,000 students.

"Under Superintendent Fagen's leadership employee morale has plummeted and millions of dollars have been diverted away from the education of students to fund reform initiatives with unknown budgets and little accountability," said Laura Mutton, president of the Strong Schools Coalition, a nonpartisan organization of parents, students, teachers and community members. "Ideally, the next superintendent of Douglas County School District will address the many concerns of the community and restore trust so the district can move forward in a positive direction for the sake of our students."

Initiatives that sparked criticism during Fagen's tenure included the implementation of a new market-based pay system that compensated teachers of in-demand subjects like science and math at a higher rate and measured teacher performance in categories ranging from Highly Effective to Ineffective.

The district is also in the midst of multiple legal challenges surrounding its attempt to create a voucher system. In 2012, the school board severed ties with the teachers' union. And the hashtag #firefagen has been used widely on social media for more than a year.

Jason Virdin, spokesman for the group Douglas County Parents, a group of parents and community members, called Fagen's tenure "an era of disregard."

"I don't have a lot of positive things to say about her time in Douglas County," Virdin said.

Virdin said his group hopes the next superintendent will be a better communicator who will "check their political affiliation at the door and put more money into classrooms than pet projects."

Jenny Robertson, a parent from Highlands Ranch, said she is "happy that Dr. Fagen is leaving Douglas County, but I am very concerned for the Humble community. I don't think she's fit to lead any public school district. Her experiments are aggressive and unproven. They would be a better fit in situations where parents knowingly opt their children into them."

Teachers' union officials also called Fagen's departure a necessary change.

"Although we believe that this is a positive step toward reclaiming public education in Douglas County, we also realize that Dr. Fagen acted in concert with the school board that directed her," Douglas County Federation President Kallie Leyba said. "And, until a majority of board members are elected who support public education and who will treat teachers and staff as the professionals they are, there will be no significant change in the direction of the district."

But Fagen's supporters believe she made a positive impact in a challenging environment.

John Carson, a University of Colorado regent and a member of the Douglas County School Board from 2005-13, praised Fagen for expanding school choice, strengthening charter schools and implementing a pay-for-performance system for teachers.

"Dr. Fagen did an excellent job," said Carson, who was the school board president when Fagen was hired. "She was the kind of leader that challenged the district to excel and improve. She wasn't afraid to challenge the status quo."

Carson, who has two children in the district, said he hopes the next superintendent will continue to innovate and build on the work that was done over the past six years.

"She poured six years of her life into our district," said Meghann Silverthorn, who has been school board president since November. "So we are grateful for her service. She oversaw a lot of great successes in the district for parents, students and staff."

The district's graduation rate has risen steadily under Fagen's watch. The rate for 2009-10 was 83 percent and for 2014-15 it was 89 percent, according to Colorado Department of Education figures. The average ACT score of district students remained between 21 and 22 each year of her tenure. DCSD's graduation and ACT figures both outperform the state average.

CDE numbers show, however, that teacher turnover under Fagen rose from 10.2 percent in 2009-10 to 19.7 percent in 2015-16. The state average is 17 percent.

Search for a new superintendent

The board will meet to outline a timetable and criteria to hire a replacement, Silverthorn said. No specific date has been scheduled for a meeting.

An interim superintendent is expected to be named before Fagen's departure and lead the district into the start of the upcoming school year.

Silverthorn said she hopes to find someone familiar with the staff, students and the community to serve in the interim - someone "with the heart of a servant who is a leader and understands our community."

Grace Davis, a 16-year old student from Ponderosa High School in Parker, staged a protest at her school in April asking for answers about why teachers are leaving the district. Davis has accused Silverthorn and school board Vice President Judith Reynolds of trying to intimidate her into not holding the rally at the school.

"The district's main priorities when choosing a new superintendent should be their track record, goals, work ethic and how the candidate will impact the students," Davis said.

Davis questioned the board of education's ability to choose a replacement.

"How can we entrust our current board of education with the decision to select our next superintendent if the majority are behaving in ways that are unacceptable for educators and administrators nationwide?" Davis asked. "We, as a district, need to make sure that we have a board that is truly representing our interests and desires before we jump to hire a new superintendent. The job of superintendent should not be a chess piece in a game of politics. We need to make sure the new member of the DCSD staff is for students and proactive in their work."

Former Highlands Ranch High School Principal Jerry Goings, who left after the 2014-15 school year, said a new superintendent must be transparent with strategic direction and leadership decisions and be "an honest communicator who doesn't spin the truth."

"They need to model how to use feedback for improvement," Goings said. "They need to subject themselves to full 360 (degree) evaluations, getting feedback from a variety of stakeholders. Then, they need to make this a clear expectation for all leaders. Superintendent should be the top learner in the district and show they are always looking at ways to improve as a leader."

Parent Stacey Chamaty of Castle Rock said she believes the position of superintendent should be earned by working your way up through the ranks and by having built trust and gained the respect of your peers, staff and the community.  

"Wherever our new superintendent comes from, I hope that community will tell us how lucky we are and mourn the departure of someone that has made a positive impact," Chamaty said. "I don't want to hear alarm bells and hear people yelling, 'Good riddance!' "

Amy Devalk, a parent from Highlands Ranch, said, "I believe the new superintendent should be open-minded and flexible. They should be able to see all sides of an issue and their only agenda should be what's best for the students and teachers of Douglas County."

Board of education member Wendy Vogel said the two most important qualities she would like to see are a heart for kids and extensive experience, both in education and leadership. And, she said, the board shouldn't go it alone in finding Fagen's replacement.

"We absolutely must seek public input," she said, "and it is imperative that we involve our community in the search for our new leader."


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