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The two finalists to be Douglas County Schools’ next superintendent have held their first public interviews covering a range of topics, including hotly debated issues such as school vouchers, arming teachers and political polarization in the community.

The school board named charter school Executive Director Erin Kane from American Academy and a district Executive Director of Schools Danny Winsor as its two finalists for superintendent on March 2.

Directors held public interviews with both finalists on March 3, allotting each about one hour to answer and ask questions with the board. And as the community got its first candid look at each finalist’s pitch to become DCSD’s next leader, controversy about the search was also on display.

Former Superintendent Corey Wise was terminated without cause in a 4-3 vote on Feb. 4 after 26 years with the district. Kane’s name was thrust into the spotlight as rumors swirled that the newly elected conservative board majority had predetermined her as Wise’s replacement.

Board President Mike Peterson has acknowledged he contacted Kane before Wise was fired to see if she had interest in the superintendency, should it become vacant, while directors Becky Myers and Kaylee Winegar said they did not have one person in mind for the position. Director Christy Williams previously said she hoped Kane would apply.

Kane has applied to be superintendent before and is a former interim superintendent, helming DCSD from 2016 to 2018. She has told Colorado Community Media she could not have predicted how Wise’s removal would unfold. After Peterson contacted her, she thought Wise might be planning to leave DCSD because the board flipped, she said.

Winsor has been with the district for 13 years and recently helped shepherd the district’s acquisition of a former college campus to use for career and technical education. He oversees DCSD’s choice programming department, and is a former principal, counselor and teacher.

Kane addresses controversial topics

Kane was to a degree on the defense in her interview, addressing head on recent speculation about her stance on arming teachers and school voucher programs.

“I want to be so clear, I am not in favor of arming teachers in Douglas County. I certainly do not do that in any of my schools,” she said.

Kane said arming staff might be right for other systems. For some districts and schools, police are far away, unable to respond for up to 20 minutes, she said. That’s not the case in Douglas County, Kane said, calling arming teachers in DCSD “entirely unnecessary” because of the proximity of local law enforcement.

Kane made similar remarks to Colorado Community Media in 2019 when a DCSD charter school was planning to leave the district so it could operate an armed-staff program. At that time, Kane said she respected the autonomy of charter schools to make the decision for themselves.

During her March 3 interview, Kane discussed her response to the 2019 shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch.

Kane said she held both a community forum for families and a forum among American Academy staff. Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock attended the community forum and together they talked about security concerns with hundreds of emotional parents, she said.

American Academy has also implemented a watchdog program in which parents and sometimes grandparents are present on campus to ensure doors are locked, check in with students and work with the school resource officer.

Asked about how she would navigate a polarized community, and for her thoughts on a superintendent’s association with groups that could trigger more polarization, Kane said everyone has political positions.

It’s well known she is a registered Republican, she said, but added “I don’t see a role for that in leading a school district.” Kane also said she considers herself “to be extremely centered.”

She would not approach being a superintendent through a political lens, she said, and is willing to change her mind on issues. Kane said she has “a history of sitting down with everybody and learning and understanding where they are coming from.”

Kane also said she wanted “to be crystal clear” that she is not in favor of vouchers or school choice programs, in which students can access public funds to attend private schools.

The district should not be paying people to attend non-district schools, she said. Kane emphasized her belief that DCSD is a great system but said she would strive to create an environment where no one would want to seek vouchers.

In her opening remarks, Kane pointed to her work as interim superintendent and leaned on her experience having run the district before. The district improved its academic state report card and was nearly accredited with distinction, she said.

When she took over, 15 schools were on improvement plans, she said, and 14 had progressed to performance plans by the time she left.

Turnover was at a dire level when she assumed the interim role, she said, noting teacher turnover stood at 20% and staff turnover at 25%. Both reduced by 7 percentage points throughout her time as the interim superintendent, she said.

Kane said she also reduced central administration spending by $20 million and reallocated those dollars to schools.

In her closing remarks, Kane said she has a measurable track record leading the district between 2016 and 2018, focuses on instilling high expectations for the system, prioritizes academic achievement, and said she wants “to return our district to sanity and stability.”

“Douglas County and this school district means the world to me,” she said.

Winsor stresses student, community support

Winsor, asked to address the same questions as Kane, also shed light on his perspectives about school safety, a polarized community and steering DCSD through turbulent waters.

“Safety is something that I think about constantly,” he said.

The issue is about both physical safety and mental health, he said. Students need to feel a sense of belonging in school and a connection to safe adults, he said.

The district should empower students to tell an adult if they are concerned about another person, and the district must prepare students with the emotional and social language to articulate their feelings, he said.

Winsor said he advocated heavily during the 2018 mill levy override and bond election to fund better student-to-counselor ratios, or about 1 counselor for every 250 students.

Winsor added that partnership with local law enforcement is crucial and worth investing in. He discussed creating “true response-based practices,” such as reunification drills on top of regular school drills.

“Our students need to know what to do,” he said.

When it comes to working in a divided community, Winsor said first and foremost families should feel like they have a voice. But the district should also make a greater effort to understand the problems it is facing and clearly identify what people are concerned about, he said.

Gathering perspective from “both sides” in the community and people in the center is equally important, he said. Winsor said at its heart, the community wants what is best for students, and is getting bogged down by disagreements on how to accomplish district goals.

“Affiliations, all those other things, it distracts us from what we are trying to focus on,” he said.

Winsor also spoke about his passion for career and technical education and concurrent enrollment programs in the district. The district should create a talent pipeline for industries facing shortages and local businesses to recruit from, while also giving students the chance to choose from multiple paths after graduation. That might be college, the military or entering the workforce, he said.

Winsor said to foster relationships with staff, students and families he would make himself accessible as superintendent, and not only in times of trouble but proactively.

He said it is difficult to establish trust when people feel there is a moving target, and he wants to refocus and simplify the district’s goals, saying DCSD is trying to work on too many different things. He would revisit the district’s strategic plan and get new feedback, he said.

The community “is in a different place” than it was when the strategic plan was created two years ago, he said. Winsor vowed to look at creating more systems to gather community feedback and develop systems to implement the district’s goals.

“You can have great ideas, but you can fail miserably when it comes to implementation,” he said.

Winsor said he’s been asked why he would want the superintendency. He isn’t intimidated by a career challenge, he said, and says that’s “the intrigue” of the job.

“It’s not a challenge, it’s the opportunity of what we will become,” he said.