Sidney ‘Chip’ Zullinger was forced out as Denver’s superintendent of schools Monday night after a nine-month tenure that started smoothly but deteriorated in a dispute over how much authority he had to act independently.
School board President Elaine Gantz Berman called his departure ‘a mutually agreed-upon parting of the ways.’
‘He basically said, ‘I’m a leader, not a manager, and I lead best when I’m free to lead without any reins,’ and he wanted the board to release the reins,’ Berman said.
So they did.
The board named Bernadette Romero Seick as acting superintendent. Seick has been assistant superintendent for secondary education and is a 30-year veteran of teaching and administrative jobs in the Denver Public Schools. Zullinger will receive his $ 140,000-a-year salary for 18 months, as his contract requires.
The rift had nothing to do with Zullinger’s abilities as an educator and everything to do with his skills as a manager, Berman said.
‘The board was totally in sync with Chip in his vision,’ Berman said, referring to his efforts to involve parents and community members in school decision-making. ‘The other half, which was the management side of the house, we thought was sorely lacking, and we had no reason to believe that was going to change.’
Berman said Zullinger was not up to the task of managing one of Colorado’s largest enterprises, with 15,000 employees, nine unions, 70,000 students and a budget approaching half a billion dollars a year. She said the board had discussed hiring an assistant superintendent to handle those kinds of duties but that Zullinger had, until recently, been reluctant to do so.
Zullinger did not return phone calls on Tuesday.
Tension between Zullinger and the board had been building for months as he repeatedly took action without consulting the board. His biggest gaffe, according to Berman, was not telling the board he was pushing a federal grant proposal in March to set up a pilot bilingual-education program. Although the board ended up supporting the proposal, some members said it would harm the district’s current, court-supervised English-language acquisition program by competing with it for attention and money.
The board knew it was getting a handful when it hired Zullinger last August, Berman conceded. ‘He did say, when he came, that he was going to violate the protocols,’ Berman said. ‘He did warn us. No one really knows what that means until it happens.’
Zullinger was on leave from his position as superintendent in Charleston, S.C., when Denver hired him. The issues there were different, Berman said; several newly elected board members in South Carolina were openly hostile toward Zullinger and his efforts to decentralize the district. But, looking back on her notes from the interview process, Berman said she now wonders whether Charleston educators were using positive language to describe the same personality traits the Denver board disliked.
‘People used words like, ‘Chip is a very empowering person,” she said. ‘Well, now I will know that what that means is, he’s very hands-off. He doesn’t provide direction. That’s all right if there’s someone else providing direction, but to have no one providing direction in a system this large is unsettling and dangerous.’
The final break came in a closed-door meeting Monday night that was part of the board’s annual performance review of Zullinger, who was on a four-year contract. There was no formal vote, but Berman said the lines were clearly
drawn: Five members thought they could no longer work with Zullinger, two said they could.
Those two were the board’s only Hispanic members, the Rev. Lucia Guzman and James Mejia. Berman said she realizes the board’s decision to let Zullinger go could spell trouble with Hispanic educators and community members, with whom Zullinger was popular.
‘I think there will be members of the community that will be very disappointed with the decision,’ Berman said.
Indeed, John F. Garcia, the head of a group called Advocates for Children, accused the board of acting like petty bureaucrats. Zullinger deserved praise, he said, for doing things like meeting with his group weekly to talk about the needs of Hispanic students at Lake and Horace Mann middle schools.
‘He’s the only superintendent who has really reached out to the Hispanic community,’ Garcia said. ‘I don’t think the board has a leg to stand on. The community won’t stand for it.’
Estevan T. Flores, a CU-Denver professor who worked with Zullinger on the controversial grant proposal, said, ‘He has been the builder of bridges to the Latino community.’
Board members Guzman and Mejia both told The Post that they agreed with some of their colleagues’ criticisms of Zullinger, but that his ability to inspire community members was more important, and he should have been given more time to prove himself.
‘It’s a hard day for some of us,’ Guzman said. She said people in her district, west and northwest Denver, especially appreciated Zullinger’s support of the dual-language Montessori school set to begin construction this summer, and a proposed gifted and talented program at North High School that the board ended up defeating.
DPS administrators didn’t always feel they were getting the same attention. Asked how Zullinger’s departure would affect her, Cleo Breeze, assistant principal at Kunsmiller Middle School, said, ‘It’s like we don’t have a superintendent, so it doesn’t really matter.’
Breeze said Zullinger didn’t follow through on a promise to meet often with black administrators.
Teachers liked him, on the other hand, according to Andrea Giunta, their union president. ‘We can say unequivocally that teachers felt more respect and interest from him than from any other recent superintendent,’ she said, citing his support for a pay-for-performance pilot project and stricter credentialing. ‘We’re sorry that Dr. Zullinger wasn’t given more time to tackle this large assignment,’ Giunta said.
Berman said the board hasn’t begun to think about how to replace Zullinger, but it likely won’t be for at least another year. ‘We’re going to take the time to bring on someone that’s the highest quality person possible for the district
that we believe has the management and the leadership skills necessary
to implement the vision that Chip set forward,’ she said.
Denver school board members knew Chip Zullinger wouldn’t be the easiest man in the world to work with when they hired him last August, board President Elaine Gantz Berman said Tuesday. But she said their aggravation grew over the months as board members felt they were shut out of important decisions. Their frustration culminated in Zullinger’s departure after a closed-door showdown Monday night.
Among the conflicts Berman cited:
Zullinger’s decision not to severely discipline chief operating officer Craig Cook after he physically assaulted the district’s public information officer, Mark Stevens, in November. That decision is being re-evaluated now, Berman said, in part because Cook allegedly made tasteless references to the episode in an April speech.
Zullinger’s support of a bilingual-education pilot project that some board members said would siphon resources away from the district’s existing program. They also were angry that he initially submitted a grant proposal for the project without telling the board.
Whether to hire an assistant superintendent to focus on management issues, freeing Zullinger to do what he did best, meet with community groups. Zullinger resisted the idea until recently, Berman said.