Douglas County Superintendent Erin Kane steps into new role under spotlight

Kane brings both background and baggage

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Erin Kane sat down at her desk on her last day of work at American Academy and looked around the room. Dozens of photos from her career, framed diplomas on the wall, a stack of books about state education law, all sat untouched. The packing hadn’t begun yet.

It was March 30 and Kane was poised to sign a contract that day to become Douglas County Schools’ next superintendent. The deal included a three-year term, $250,000 annual salary and a proposed start date of March 31.

Morning bled into the afternoon, and despite being happy with the school board’s final offer, Kane had not signed yet. Her day was instead filled with goodbyes and mentally preparing to box up her things to leave the charter school she helped found more than 15 years ago.

Most formative for Kane during her time running the DCSD charter school, comprising three campuses and serving nearly 3,000 preschool through eighth-grade students, she said, was the chance to lead both American Academy and the district as an interim superintendent.

“I have seen through the lens of a charter leader, and I have also seen through the lens of a school district,” she said. “I sort of have this 360-degree view.”

A new leader

The next morning, Kane made her first official statement as superintendent of Colorado’s third largest school district, serving nearly 90 schools, 64,000 students and employing 8,600 people.

In a letter to the community, Kane promised to unveil her 100-day plan this month, capping a tense superintendent search process for the district.

Her predecessor Corey Wise was controversially fired without cause in a split 4-3 board vote on Feb. 4. The decision was complicated by allegations from the board minority that majority directors violated open meetings by privately planning Wise’s removal, and asking him to step down in a closed-door meeting before holding a public vote.

Speculation started almost immediately that the majority had predetermined Kane, a well-known school leader in the district, as Wise’s replacement. It was fueled further when board President Mike Peterson confirmed he asked Kane if she had interest in the superintendency before Wise was terminated.

As the board narrowed its search from two finalists to naming Kane as its sole finalist, again in a split decision, calls ramped up for Kane and the majority to disclose more detail about a retreat the newly elected directors held after winning office in November. Kane attended. Her opponents wanted to know why.

Asked if she took part in any conversations regarding Wise’s employment with the district, Kane’s voice raised.

“Absolutely not. Absolutely not,” she said.

She attended the retreat to present about school financials and push for funding, she said. Kane said people alleging she colluded for the job “are creating a narrative that isn’t true.”

“I don’t know what else to say,” she said.

Community reaction to Kane was strong, met with both fierce and passionate support for her to become DCSD’s leader, and staunch opposition from those leery of her path to secure the job.

School Board Director David Ray said the other finalist, Danny Winsor, was a unifying choice. He considered Kane to be the opposite. She is a successful leader, he said, but a divisive name that would continue to polarize the community.

Ray, who passionately opposed the manner of Wise’s firing and the superintendent search process, boycotted Kane’s hiring by refusing to attend the special meeting in which directors approved her contract.

But the embattled superintendent argues her track record tells a different story.

“I don’t think people calling me divisive makes me divisive,” Kane said.

Skeptics remain

Twice now, a board president has asked Kane to consider helming the district amid a season of chaos. The most recent instance was earlier this school year when Peterson approached her. The second was back in 2016, when the then superintendent left for another job and the district needed an interim leader.

Kane felt apprehensive, she said.

She spent two months thinking of every reason why applying to be interim superintendent was “a terrible idea,” she said. No education degree. A charter school leader? And after a board of reform-minded directors had made contentious changes in the district, such as pursuing a voucher program and changing the way teachers were paid, tensions ran high in DCSD.

“The district was just a mess at the time,” Kane said.

Kane said she expected her time as interim superintendent to be brief. Six months, at most. Instead two years went by, although not without pushback.

Two directors at the time, Ray and former board Director Anne-Marie Lemieux, gave Kane negative evaluations of her interim performance and voted against extending her contract in 2017.

Lemieux has remained a vocal critic of Kane’s fitness for the job throughout the 2022 search.

She said Kane lacked transparency with the board as interim superintendent, citing an example in which Kane informed school principals she was making budget cuts before talking with directors about her plan.

Lemieux said Kane is taking credit for a boost to employee morale between 2016 and 2018 when she shouldn’t be. A superintendent left. New board members were elected. Those were significant factors, Lemieux said.

Lemieux worried Kane will open the door for more charter schools in the district. Of DCSD’s 89 schools, 18 are charter. Increasing the number of charter schools “takes funding out of the Douglas County School District pot,” she said.

“Her track record is an outspoken proponent of the charter school model, and she is now leading a district that needs its neighborhood schools to be taken care of. And that’s not in her wheelhouse,” Lemieux said.

Lemieux questioned if Kane would instruct employees against best practices “because she doesn’t understand pedagogy.”

“It’s alarming because she’s not qualified for the position,” Lemieux said. “This is the third largest district in the state and a deep understanding of the diverse educational needs of the students has to be a No. 1 consideration. And someone with no educational background doesn’t have the qualifications. I’m not being mean, I’m being honest.”

Where it all started

Kane went to college at the University of Colorado in Boulder, earning a degree in applied math and computer science. Her sophomore year, Kane said, she was hired as the university’s only undergraduate teaching assistant.

“I’m a math girl, and so I started teaching math classes at the university for arts and science students who didn’t like math,” she said.

She was 19 and getting her first go at helping run a classroom. Kane recalled the feeling of students have a lightbulb moment, clicking with a subject that did not come easily for them.

“It really, I think, lit an early fire in me for caring about getting that lightbulb to come on,” she said.

Her first group of students gifted her a card and teddy bear at the end of their course, which Kane has kept to this day.

She landed her first job out of college at the technology company IBM, working on positioning global satellites, or GPS. It was 1994 and the technology had yet to make its way into cellphones. People still bought separate GPS devices, Kane said.

“I used to program telemetry,” she said.

From IBM, Kane moved to the private sector and worked for a business intelligence company in D.C., specializing in data science. She and her husband returned to Colorado in 2000, settling in Castle Pines North to start their family after the birth of their first daughter.

There, Kane raised her three children. She worked a few more years in high technology before spending a brief stint as a stay-at-home mother. In that time, she also tutored district students in pre-calc and trigonometry.

“Nerdy. I’m very nerdy,” she said

Also during that period, Kane formed the idea of starting a charter school. The district had great schools, Kane said, but she envisioned an education model that prioritized science, technology, engineering and math.

“STEM was literally not even an acronym in 2004,”she said.

Kane helped found American Academy in 2005. Opening with 391 students, the school launched at a strip mall in Lone Tree. Parents and staff painted the 20,000 square feet of warehouse space, carpeted the floors, and watched as a waitlist began to form.

“Concrete playground and all,” Kane said.

The county and district was undergoing a phase of growth, she said, and American Academy helped absord that. As enrollment climbed, the charter school moved to Castle Pines North, opening its first building in 2009. That same year, the school’s director left. American Academy’s board asked Kane to step in “for just five minutes,” she said, while it sought new leadership.

A board member at the time, and still dabbling in the engineering field, Kane recalled feeling reluctant. She knew she did not have experience as a principal, she said, but she agreed.

“I stepped in for five minutes, and that was 14 years ago,” she said.

An emulated leader

Mark Middlebrooks, the specials department director for American Academy, oversees art, music, technology and physical education for the school. He’s one of the charter school’s employees to have joined its staff in 2005, and never leave.

He recalled a culture of camaraderie, and a vision for the school that drew people in despite the “less than desirable” facility it opened in. People joined because “of what we sensed was a really great thing happening.”

“It wasn’t perhaps the most glamorous of roles in which to get started,” he said, “but there was such a sense of purpose about it.”

In interviewing for the job, Middlebrooks said he wanted to try new, emerging strategies in music education such as music workstations for each child, and found receptive leaders at American Academy willing to let him innovate.

He met Kane while she was still an American Academy board member and not yet its director. Roughly 17 years later, he holds her up as someone innately skilled at building a covetable work culture.

“I would characterize her leadership style as one that I strive to emulate,” he said.

She fosters innovation, and lets staff takes risks to do so, he said.

“One of her tenets of leadership is building a culture where individuals feel comfortable to take risks and to try new things, and to sometimes make mistakes,” he said.

Kane has said her approach to managing COVID-19, such as allowing optional masking in times when district-run schools were not doing so, did not make everyone in her school community happy. Kane did her best to support starkly polarized views on the pandemic, she has said.

Supporters pointed to her prowess for data as crucial in managing pandemic response. The board’s conservative majority praised her as someone who has pushed back against policies the four found too progressive.

To Middlebrooks, Kane has “this uncanny ability to zoom out” on an issue and look at the big picture, he said.

Her dedication to the district and teachers has been evident in her advocacy for the 2018 bond and mill levy override, he said. Kane helped pave the way for the ballot measure’s passage, he said, and she “was true to her word” at American Academy regarding how she would distribute the funds if the initiative was successful at the polls.

“They were distributed directly into staff salaries,” he said. “It was just a huge boon to staff morale, and it was an obvious and outright indication of the value that is placed on staff members and teachers by Erin.”

Middlebrooks described feeling ambivalent about Kane’s departure as American Academy’s director, because while “I simply love working with her,” he said, he’s also celebrating for the district.

“Point blank my reaction was that, and I follow the district fairly closely I think, and knowing some of the challenges in our school district, I don’t know that I could imagine anyone better positioned and better equipped,” he said.

Looking ahead

Today Kane holds a master’s degree in public administration and points to her time as interim for evidence she is the right leader for DCSD. In those two years, turnover decreased significantly, grades improved and an annual spending deficit was eliminated, according to the district.

Kane said she worked fervently to bring the community together between 2016 and 2018. She vowed to do the same now.

She described herself as a listener, and reasonable. Someone who puts “kids at the front, all the time.” Political rhetoric doesn’t have “any place in a school district,” she said.

When it comes to the district’s hotly debated equity policy — which sparked accusations of critical race theory in schools but hope among its supporters for a greater focus on equity in DCSD — Kane said she wants to conduct more community outreach. She’ll seek to understand in detail how people want the policy to be implemented, she said.

“If we can provide clarity around that for people, I think that we will see a lot less rhetoric,” she said.

Kane said one cause of division in the community — the COVID-19 pandemic — is fading into the rearview mirror, leaving her optimistic toward a more unified future for DCSD.

She repeated a mantra of hers throughout the selection process, emphasizing her belief the community has more in common that it may realize. The district community “can’t let the 5% fringe define us,” she said.

“I think I can bring people together,” she said. “Our kids need people who are willing to step up and walk into the fray.”

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