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Sheridan School District #2 is seen on Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Englewood. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

A superintendent over one of Colorado’s poorest school districts collected a nearly 20% raise this year, igniting a debate over spending even as enrollment is in freefall.

Supporters of Pat Sandos’ raise — which increased his base salary 17% to $202,000 — call it a crook to keep him in Sheridan School District No. 2, ensuring continuity. Critics lambaste it as an “unconscionable” move and “a glaring inequity” when others are suffering, even as Sandos has been among the lowest-paid superintendents in the metro Denver area. 

“We’re still dealing with the pandemic and all that it caused, and I just feel like we’re putting reward before accountability,” said former school board president Bernadette Saleh. 

The debate comes as the district faces a loss of more than $1 million in state funding this year amid its latest enrollment decline, raising questions about how to prioritize students, staff and administrators with limited resources. 

Teachers will get some of those resources, with about 10% raises this year, though they were “hard fought,” said Matt Blomquist, president of the Sheridan Educator Association. He described Sandos as “a big roadblock” in the union’s compensation negotiations over the last two years. 

“I do find it odd that we were told for so long that the district was in dire straits in terms of its finances,” said Blomquist, who teaches English and writing at Sheridan High School.

Not all board members are on board with Sandos’ 17% raise, equal to about $30,000. The board’s approval of the pay increase prompted Saleh to end her term early, resigning after 16 years as a board member.

“It’s unconscionable,” Saleh, 73, said of the raise. “It’s untenable.”

Saleh resigned from the board in May, six months shy of the end of her term in November, because of the board’s decision to dramatically increase the superintendent’s pay at a time Sheridan School District has consistently lost students and $9,121.09 in state funding the district gets for every student it educates. Like many Colorado districts, Sheridan School District lost students during the pandemic. During the last school year, the district recorded 1,246 students, down 113 students from the previous school year, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education.

Bernadette Saleh, former Sheridan school board member of 16 years, poses for a portrait on Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Englewood. Saleh resigned after a salary increase for Sheridan Superintendent Pat Sandos was approved in May. “It was a hard decision. Considering the circumstances and the decision itself, I couldn’t stand behind it. And if you can’t, you really just can’t move on,” Saleh said. “The community needs to be fully aware of what’s going on. This is their community; this is their children that are affected.” (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

The district’s student numbers have fluctuated throughout the last decade, but overall enrollment has declined. During the 2010-11 school year, the district had 1,653 students, CDE data shows.

Saleh worries about the district’s finances, noting that the most recent loss of 113 students cost the district more than $1 million in state funding. She doesn’t see how the board can justify giving Sandos a 17% raise — in addition to another $86,000 in other benefits and compensation — as the district has continued to lose students. That kind of raise isn’t financially feasible for the district nor is it in the best interest of the district, she said.

“Until we’re in a better financial position, I think we have to be careful about tax dollars,” Saleh said.

Saleh wasn’t planning on running for re-election but originally intended to serve out her term. She believes that Sandos deserved a raise but suggested it be 10% or less, closer to the raises given to teachers in the district.

Blomquist is adamant that more money needs to flow to teachers and support staff directly serving students in his district and others, framing it as a systemic problem. When a superintendent pockets four or five times what a starting teacher makes, or even more, “it’s a glaring inequity,” he said. 

“The disparity between their pay and what teachers are making, this is one of the root problems in education,” Blomquist said. “It’s going to take a complete paradigm shift for us to rectify that.”

Fearing Sandos could migrate to another district

Saleh, who volunteered in the district before becoming a school board member in 2005 and whose son graduated from the district, was a proponent of hiring Sandos to take over as superintendent in 2018. At that point, he had already worked in the district for three years. She was confident that he was the best candidate for the job because he was familiar with the small district and had the best qualifications.

The board gave Sandos a 7.8% raise in 2019 and did not give him a raise last year amid the pandemic and the drop in the district’s student count, Saleh said.

The board approved a more substantial raise this year so that Sheridan would not risk losing Sandos to a superintendent chair in another Colorado district. More than one Denver metro district had a top leadership vacancy during the last school year, including Denver Public Schools, Jeffco Public Schools, Douglas County School District and Poudre School District.

In an emailed statement, current board president Sally Daigle raised concerns about the possibility of Sandos moving to another district. Daigle said that the board “values continuity” and pointed out that Sheridan School District’s previous superintendent was there for 10 years.

“We saw the positive impact of stable leadership,” Daigle wrote. “This school year, as a number of Metro Denver school districts were recruiting superintendent candidates to fill several vacancies, we did not want to lose Superintendent Sandos.”

The board’s approach to Sandos’ salary aligns with broader efforts to hire and retain employees in the district, including teachers, principals and other staff, she said.

Even with Sandos’ raise, which took effect in July, his salary remains among the lowest of metro Denver district superintendents, Daigle added.

Daigle said the superintendent’s contract bars future pay raises unless the district succeeds in raising its student count — underscoring the district’s continuing focus on bolstering enrollment. 

In deciding how much to pay superintendents, districts have to prioritize being competitive with other districts and other states, said Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project. School boards have several factors to weigh, including how experienced a superintendent is, where they’re coming from and whether they’re being hired for a multi-year contract or a one-year contract.

With Colorado focused on local control, school boards are responsible for determining the salary figures of their superintendents, Rainey said. School boards review contacts with district leaders annually and spell out expectations and criteria, often related to how well a district is performing or improvements it has made. But there’s no guarantee that a superintendent will automatically receive a raise, she said.

Rainey noted that many districts were cautious last year in light of a lot of financial uncertainty and held off on doling out raises to superintendents. She anticipates that districts will likely reward their superintendents with pay raises this year to make up for it while also recognizing the chaotic year they endured and saying thank you.

Rainey is less focused on the specific numbers behind pay raises and more focused on whether a pay bump positions a district to be competitive with other districts in Colorado and other districts a superintendent might be eyeing.

“It all has to do with trying to make sure that the board can hire the best person possible and be competitive in that process,” Rainey said, “and that competitive nature is not just a function of surrounding Colorado districts but also other states that might be interested in that individual.”

Whose interests does the district value more?

Sandos, 57, said he did receive phone calls from other districts asking if he would be interested in taking over as superintendent. But he’s determined to retire in Sheridan School District.

“It’s a very special place,” Sandos said. “It is a small town in a big city. The community is a wonderful community. I love the families. I love the kids.”

He acknowledges the district has struggled to retain its student body, a struggle that predates his time as superintendent. He cited the high cost of living in metro Denver, saying it pushes families out of the district into less expensive areas including Brighton and parts of Aurora and Green Valley Ranch.

“They just can’t afford to live in the metro area,” Sandos said.

When asked why he deserves a 17% raise, Sandos responded, “I think that the board feels like we’re doing a good job and I think they recognize the difficulty of the job.” 

Pat Sandos is pictured during an interview for the role of superintendent in Sheridan School District No. 2 in 2018. (Courtesy of Sheridan School District No. 2)

Among the district’s accomplishments in recent years, he points to a trades program the district offers in partnership with trades professionals that creates a new pathway for students and the development of an advanced placement program so that students can pursue higher-level courses. Sandos said for the past two years, Sheridan students have scored higher in their AP Spanish exams than the national average and state average. He hopes to continue expanding the district’s AP offerings.

The superintendent knows that Sheridan School District has lost state funding as students have left its schools, but he also knows how challenging it is to lead a small district. He doesn’t have the large staff that bigger districts tend to have, meaning that ancillary roles, such as safety and security, fall to him.

“I do wear multiple hats,” Sandos said.

And being close to a major city presents other significant challenges, with a high poverty rate, high homelessness rate and high cost of living, he noted.

More than 81% of Sheridan students qualified for free and reduced price lunch — a federal indicator of poverty — during the last school year, according to data from CDE. Sandos hopes that community members won’t criticize his 17% raise but will instead see the progress the district is making and understand the difficulty of his job.

“We’re trying to create the best environment possible for our kids,” Sandos said.

Sheridan High School is seen on Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Englewood. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

He recognizes that the district “lost a lot of steam” with its academic progress during the pandemic as students and teachers had to figure out how to conduct classes remotely and as the district had to accelerate its one-to-one technology rollout from a three-year plan to a three-month plan.

“We weren’t ready for that,” Sandos said. “No one was ready for that, let alone an at-risk district.”

He believes the district steered through all the disruptions created by the pandemic “very well.” 

Saleh acknowledges that it was a tough year and praises Sandos for his job leading the district through it. Still, she could not bring herself to sign off on his contract with such a lofty raise attached to it. She ultimately felt she had no choice but to leave.

Saleh worries about the message that his 17% raise sends to students, parents and teachers — “that we put the interests of the superintendent above the interests of our kids.” 

CORRECTION:The headline on this story was updated at 10:17 a.m. on July 21, 2021, to correct the sum of money the Sheridan School District lost in state funding. The district lost more than $1 million in state funding. Additionally, a graphic in the story has been updated to correct inaccurate information provided by the Colorado Department of Education. The base salary of Englewood Schools’ superintendent during the 2020-21 school year was $185,101.