Denver school board members laughed with approval when Chip Zullinger warned he was unconventional, a superintendent who bypassed bureaucratic protocol to aim directly at complex student achievement problems.
Nine months after hiring him, they aren’t laughing as much.
Zullinger tends to get out in front of the board with provocative ideas, straining the patience of some members. They want to know about things before having to decide their fate.
“We were warned,” conceded board vice president Bennie Milliner. “But one of the main things we want is to have no surprises.
“He works for us. We don’t work for him.”
Zullinger said he reminds himself to keep in touch better.
“I am very clearly a superintendent that finds himself pretty often in the position of having to ask forgiveness rather than permission,” he said.
Zullinger’s job is not at risk. But Milliner and others want some changes. “I’m not as concerned about forgiving it as fixing it,” he said. Board member Lucia Guzman offered another perspective:
“When you have someone with a vision who comes on in a different way we need to be ready for the fact that’s who they are,” she said.
Zullinger misstepped most recently by applying for a $3.3. million federal
grant with University of Colorado professors without much review from his staff or the board. The grant would finance bilingual teacher training and let Spanish speaking children spend three to five years in bilingual classes in four and
possibly more schools.
Milliner and board members Sue Edwards and Sharon Macdonald argued the grant violated a court order that primarily endorses English language acquisition.
Guzman said Zullinger was doing his job. “The superintendent is the person
we hired to administer this stuff,” she said.
The board plans to vote on the grant Wednesday.
Zullinger sees the grant as a way to offer more choice to parents. He wants Spanish speakers to take state standards tests in Spanish and English to better separate their language limits from academic ones.
A few weeks ago Zullinger and teachers and the principal of North High
School asked the board for a new teaching position to start a program for the
highly gifted and talented. The proposal, which died, represented a pattern: It was sketchy, had no evaluation from his staff and came out of the blue for the
Zullinger needs to learn to build a base of support for his ideas from his
administration, Guzman said.
“He needs to match working with his staff like he does on the outside with
the community,” she said. “Then I think we’d have a pretty exemplary leader.”
Contact Brian Weber at (303) 892-5245 or weberb@RockyMountainNews.com.