Littleton Public Schools Superintendent Brian Ewert said he plans to retire June 30, 2023.
“He has been an excellent leader and we will miss him,” said Board of Education President Robert Reichardt. “I think he picked a time to leave that works out really well."
A 36-year veteran of public schools, Ewert has served as LPS' leader since April 2015 and has shepherded the district through a slew of crises, including funding challenges, declining enrollment rates and threats of violence spurred by COVID policies.
After several years, the district may have hit the crest of a long wave of growing challenges as it looks to school consolidations, more stable funding and the return of pre-pandemic learning.
For Ewert, it marks the right time to bow out.
“I’ve been contemplating retirement for a couple of years," Ewert said. "As I look at all of the work that we’ve done … next year will be a very quiet and calm year."
The COVID-19 pandemic upended schools across the country, fueling bitter backlash from parents and community members over masking policies and, in some cases, death threats.
For Ewert, it was "absolutely exhausting.”
“It is not something that any of us were ever prepared to deal with for two years," Ewert said, adding that the entire school system was strained as it navigated closures, teacher shortages and tense public meetings.
Ewert himself was the subject of a death threat in late January when a 48-year-old Thornton man left a voice message on Ewert's phone threatening to kill him using anthrax. The man, Byron Clayton, was issued a protection order later in court.
Board members also recieved similar threats from Clayton according to Reichardt.
The incident was the culmination of outrage drummed up by two minors, one a Littleton High School student and the other who is homeschooled, who lied their way into getting approved for a COVID vaccine at a clinic at Heritage High School.
The two took videos of themselves being approved for a vaccine by Jogan Health staff that then went viral on a far-right Twitter account. Their parents accused Ewert and the district of pushing vaccines on minors without parental consent, though neither minor went through with vaccination.
Ewert called the act "deceitful to prove a point," and, after his death threat, said the incident "put some things into perspective about how exposed public officials are."
COVID-19 was far from the only rollercoaster Ewert and the district faced.
For years several of LPS' schools have seen declining enrollment rates which the district's education board has attributed to families being unable to live in the city due to its high housing costs.
It's been one of the factors behind a growing financial crisis for the district. But despite the challenges, Ewert said LPS has met the moment
“This community and this board have really stuck with me," Ewert said. “I’m proud of the work that we’ve done. Has it been easy, no … but I would not go back and undo any of those hard decisions that we’ve made."
In November 2018, voters approved a bond allowing the district to raise $298 million to pay for a slew of future projects. In November 2020, voters approved a $12 million mill levy override to help the district shore up gaps created from a lack of sufficient state funding.
The district, under Ewert, also worked to consolidate schools with dwindling student bodies in a bid to maximize its resources and shore up quality. The most recent is the forthcoming Little Raven Elementary School, which broke ground May 9 and will consolidate the students and staff of Ralph Moody and East Elementary School.
“Small schools are relatively inefficient, and (Brian) pushed us to consolidate those smaller schools," Reichardt said.
The district has also faced its share of tragedy, with a 2013 shooting and a several students who have died by suicide that have formed palpable trauma among the community.
Ewert said that while much more work needs to be done, the district's focus on mental health support has made major strides.
"We are doing our work quietly behind the scenes, engaging with parents and students and teachers," Ewert said
In 2019 and 2020, sociologist and researcher Anna Mueller, who teaches at Indiana University, conducted a two-year-long study into the relationship between social environments and youth suicide at LPS.
The study's full report was published in October and provides a roadmap for how school districts across the country can improve their mental health practices. Ewert said he believes the practices and philosophies outlined in the report are becoming further cemented at LPS, which also partners with several community services to provide outside support for its students.
“Yes, we teach kids reading, writing, mathematics and social studies, but it is so much more than that," Ewert said.
Reichardt said it was the district's ability to be vulnerable and open during Mueller's study that allowed it to grow its mental health initiatives.
“Under Brian’s leadership, the district opened its doors to her, and I think she was able to do some really groundbreaking work because of that," he said.
While the pandemic caused division among some community members, Ewert said the district and its families have mostly stayed above the fray when it comes to other social and political lightning rods.
Ewert pointed to the results of November's board of education election, which saw candidates steeped in education experience triumph and a candidate who staked his campaign on rooting out Critical Race Theory come last.
“They weren’t there for a political agenda, they were there to do right by our children in the classroom," Ewert said, noting that the current board is made up of Republicans, Democrats and an unaffiliated voter.
Ewert also rejected the growing right-wing narrative sweeping the country that Critical Race Theory is being taught in K-12 education.
“This notion that we’re making white kids feel bad about their heritage by teaching the history of what happened, that’s absolutely false, that hasn’t happened," Ewert said.
And he championed the use of equity policies that have been threatened in other school districts such as in Douglas County where the district's board majority is reviewing current policy.
“The notion that equity is a bad word is simply false," Ewert said. “It means that we understand every student in our system by name and need."
As Ewert looks to retirement, he said LPS is the best place for him to end his career in education.
"Our teachers in this district are second-to-none,” Ewert said.
While LPS' board of education will ultimately set a timeline for when to begin its next superintendent search, Ewert said he expects the process to begin sometime in late summer or early fall, with a possible search firm secured by November.
Reichardt said while he and other board members are sad to see Ewert leaves, he believes the path forward for LPS is bright.
“I’m very optimistic for the future, I think we’re in a very good place,” Reichardt said.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Douglas County School District removed its current equity policy. District board majority members are seeking to review it. The story has been updated.
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