After 10 stakeholder meetings and more than 750 online survey responses about what Colorado Springs School District 11 wants in a new superintendent, search consultant Dr. Walt Cooper says some clear priorities have emerged over the last month and a half.
“We’ve got to right this ship in terms of student enrollment,” Cooper said. “We’re losing too many kids out of D11.”
The D11 school board began the search after parting ways in March with Dr. Michael Thomas. Thomas was hired in 2018 by a board that supported equity work and closing achievement gaps for marginalized students. But by 2021, this vision was at odds with the board’s newly elected conservative majority, and Thomas felt he couldn’t overcome the political divisions. Thomas was quickly hired as superintendent by Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools in Minnesota.
In meetings with D11 school board members, students, teachers, parents and members of the public, most groups identified declining enrollment as a top issue, which has bled into other aspects of school quality, according to the stakeholder input report compiled by McPherson & Jacobson LLC, the executive search firm hired to recruit the district’s superintendent candidates. In the face of shrinking enrollment, the report said, D11 has cut teacher positions and attracted less funding for facilities improvements. Over the last four years, D11 has lost more than 4,500 students, the Indy reported last month.
The report said one of the takeaways from the Coronado Quadrant Parent Teacher Association and School Accountability Committee stakeholder meeting was: “We want to be the district of choice. What does that take?”
On May 7, D11 announced three finalists in its national search for a leader, all of whom bring different professional experiences that the board believes could help boost enrollment and student academic performance, says Board President Dr. Parth Melpakam.
“We wanted somebody who’s going to be a visionary leader, who’s got creative, out-of-the-box thinking to solve some of the challenges that the district is facing,” Melpakam told the Indy.
The D11 Board narrowed down a group of 10 superintendent semifinalists to three: Dr. Tammy Clementi, an education consultant with background as an administrator in two Colorado public school districts; Michael Gaal, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who helped lead three large, urban public school districts and most recently managed sales for an education technology company; and Peter Hilts, who has been the chief education officer for neighboring District 49 since 2013 and before that spent about a decade in leadership at The Classical Academy, the largest K-12 charter school in the state.
Although Cooper says the search was not intentionally seeking candidates with local ties, all three finalists have them.
Clementi, who was unavailable to comment before the Indy’s press deadline, began her career as a D11 elementary school teacher, according to her résumé.
Gaal attended the Air Force Academy and later started his family at the Academy.
And Hilts, if selected, would move from one Springs school district to another, and emphasized his deep ties to D11. The D49 Board renewed Hilts’ administrator contract for the 2022-2023 school year during a May 12 meeting, but Hilts says he will continue with his bid to become D11’s superintendent.
“I think this is a complex, unique community,” Hilts said of D11. “I don’t just know how to turn left around the statue of General Palmer, I also know where the schools are, many of the leaders in the district and in individual schools, and all of my neighbors are of District 11 —because this is where I live, and this is where I serve.”
Gaal has been a finalist or semifinalist in three other national superintendent searches this year, including one in Decatur, Illinois, where he withdrew from consideration because he lacked qualifications required in that state, namely a license for school administrators and teaching experience, reported the Herald & Review, a local publication.
Colorado has no such requirements for superintendents, says Cooper, the McPherson & Jacobson consultant. But Clementi does have Colorado administrator and principal licenses from the Colorado Department of Education and she was trained by Harvard University’s Institute for Superintendents and District Leaders in 2021, her résumé says. Hilts is licensed as a Colorado principal.
Whether such licensure and administrator-specific background matters in a superintendent search depends entirely on what the school board is looking for, Cooper says.
“A lot of smaller, rural districts that I work with, for example, they have a preference typically that the superintendent has a principal’s license, because in smaller districts they’re so much closer to the work in the actual schools,” he explains. “The more complex the organization and the larger the organization, the further away from those parts of the actual operation of the district the superintendent becomes."
Gaal, who spent most of his career in the military and has a corporate background, stands as an outlier compared with Hilts and Clementi — which was intentional on the part of the board, Melpakam says. In the superintendent job posting, the board wrote that “non-traditional candidates are encouraged to apply” — and Gaal told the Indy that as one of those nontraditional candidates, he has the ability to lead “transformational change” in D11.
He aims to radically change the mindset of D11’s central administration, allowing staff members closest to the goal of improving students’ academic performance — for example, teachers — to determine what they need from the district to achieve that goal.
“We need to change the narrative — central office is not evaluative and disconnected from schools, they are supportive and servant to the needs of schools,” says Gaal, who has served as an administrator in District of Columbia Public Schools, the Oakland Unified School District and the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan, in Detroit.
“That’s one of the things I’ve done in all three of the districts that I’ve been in, is really flipped that script,” he adds.
On declining enrollment, Gaal said he was also tasked with addressing that issue in the three districts he served. School choice and a decreasing number of families with children in D11 have been a challenge for the district, and reversing that trend depends on improving students’ performance and school outcomes, the quality of facilities and clear communication to families, Gaal says he learned in the other cities.
“We stabilized [enrollment] my first year in Detroit, and then we increased by about 7 percent in the second year,” he says. “Then in D.C., one of my favorite talking points is in the last eight weeks that I was there, I actually brought 1,000 extra seats back to the system,” by absorbing a closing charter school.
Hilts says he sees declining enrollment as a “symptom, not a root cause” of D11 failing to meet the expectations of parents. He identified early literacy proficiency as a way to put children on the right path for academic and personal development, and touted his success with improving students’ literacy performance in D49.
“Within those first four years, the Colorado Department of Education specifically called out my leadership and said we had made District 49 a statewide leader in early literacy,” Hilts says. “What worked in D49, will work in District 11. It has to do with personalizing and individualizing instruction for every learner.”
When asked about his long career with The Classical Academy and position on public charter schools — a history that is of concern to the pro-public education D11 parents group Neighbors for Education — Hilts said he’s a “deep believer in public education options and choice.”
In a statement shared by Neighbors for Education co-founder Jennifer Williamson, the group said, “we want a superintendent who believes in public education and will work to make every school a quality school for every student.”
Hilts would like to evaluate district-operated schools and charters to make sure they’re “delivering on the promise of public education,” and if a charter school is created based on the community’s wishes, so be it, he says.
“I would much rather a charter school emerge from a community desire to build something special, than that charter school status be imposed on a conventional school as some sort of sanction,” Hilts says.
Clementi, the only finalist who has taught in D11, has also been a finalist in several Colorado school district superintendent searches over the years. She’s known among teachers in D11’s union, the Colorado Springs Education Association, says Joe Schott, president of CSEA, who added he does not know Clementi personally.
“Her reputation is good here,” Schott says. “The teachers that I’ve heard from and that have talked about her found her to be somebody that they could work with.”
Schott sees an advantage for candidates with doctorates — which Clementi has and Hilts is studying for, according to his résumé. Schott says a doctorate shows that the finalists are dedicated to “deep thinking” and to studying education topics, which is “demonstrably important” to teachers.
“If you’ve spent the time to investigate the topic and immerse yourself in it and look at it — any Ph.D. demands multiple lenses — it’s a conceptual piece that demands ... you be able to recognize what is and isn’t valuable,” Schott says.
Schott says that he’s satisfied with the D11 board’s transparency in selecting a superintendent, and scheduling finalists’ visits with stakeholder groups well in advance. On May 23, the three finalists will visit multiple district schools and meet with stakeholders, says Melpakam.
The finalists will then participate in a public interview at 4 p.m. on May 24 at the D11 Tesla Professional Development Building auditorium. Members of the public may attend and submit questions online for the finalists until May 23, through a form on the district’s superintendent search webpage.
“From now on, the entire process takes place under the public eye, so to speak,” Melpakam tells the Indy. “We will then reconvene as a board to discuss the three candidates, their strengths, and who has risen to the top through this public interview process and see if we are ready to announce the next superintendent of School District 11.”