Jeffco Schools: The Bad, Good, and (Still) Ugly

Tom Coyne
4 min readNov 2, 2023

Jefferson County Public Schools is a complex, $1.4 billion organization facing multiple crises. Here’s my assessment of its condition today, based on 13 years of observations since we moved here from Calgary, and years of experience leading organizational turnarounds.

The Bad

Long gone are the 1980s, when Jeffco Schools had a sterling national reputation. While county residents are still affluent and educated (48% have a bachelor’s degree or higher), the district’s academic results have been declining for more than 20 years. In reading, math, and science they are dismal, across all student groups:

Pct Jeffco Students Who are NOT Proficient

Jeffco claims that it’s mission is to provide “a world class education.” Clearly, it is failing, and not providing an education that will enable our children to successfully compete in the 21st century economy — not only with talented people from around the world, but also with rapidly improving artificial intelligence technologies.

Declining academic performance contributed to the loss of 11,058 students from Jeffco’s district-run schools between 2012 and 2021. Over the same period, Jeffco’s Option Schools gained 2,050 students, charter schools gained 1,952, and students choicing out of Jeffco to schools in other districts increased by 1,351 to 5,088 students. Due to falling enrollment, Jeffco closed 16 district-run schools last year, with more closures coming as enrollment continues to fall.

Jeffco also faces a rapidly worsening budget crisis, with sharply rising deficits due to (1) falling enrollment; (2) the end of federal ESSER aid next year; and (3) the impact of the board’s decision to increase teacher compensation by more than 18% over the past two years, even as student achievement results continued to worsen.

Jeffco’s Capital Program is also mired in scandal. Its cost has ballooned from $705 million to $856 million, due to cost overruns on projects at district-run schools (charter schools had none) and spending on projects never disclosed to Prop 5B voters in 2018 (like $50 million on athletic facilities and $17 million to GIFT a pool to the City of Arvada).

Consequently, Jeffco now lacks the funds to replace Fletcher Miller, the district’s decrepit school for our most disabled children.

The Good

Jeffco has an entirely new top leadership team, many of whom came from outside Jeffco. Members have been hired based on their potential to improve the district’s performance, in stark contrast to Jeffco’s traditional “it’s your turn” approach to promotions. Weak leaders are slowly being replaced, and the new team is more focused on improving academic results than at any time since the late 1990s when Jane Hammond was Superintendent (she was the last to deliver substantial academic gains).

Starting this year, all schools in each articulation area finally report to a single Community Superintendent, which should dramatically improve accountability for their results.

Student performance data and related analytics are no longer tightly guarded secrets, and are now available to teachers in real time to help improve student performance.

Jeffco has finally standardized reading and math curricula across the district (which should further boost results), and invested in MAP Accelerator (a joint venture of NWEA and Kahn Academy) which, in other districts, has delivered stunning results in helping students to recover their math learning losses.

The new CFO has ended the old (and shocking) practice of running a $1.4 billion organization using a set of linked, error-filled spreadsheets, and replaced it with a modern financial management system.

Superintendent Dorland has also brought in Moss Adams (a firm which specializes in auditing school district capital programs) to provide an independent analysis of Jeffco’s capital program and recommend corrective actions in response to its many management and governance failings.

The Ugly

Among turnaround specialists, there is an old saying: “The most dangerous problems facing a failing organization are the ones nobody talks about.”

Take a look at this list of the “Major Root Causes” of Jeffco’s declining academic results that have appeared in a decade’s worth of the district’s Unified Improvement Plans. What don’t you see?

None of these UIPs acknowledged that dramatic changes to Jeffco’s culture are needed for the district to become a high-performance organization.

While there are always hopeful school-level exceptions, today the district as a whole remains too insular, too tolerant of mediocrity, too focused on spin, and too lacking in a collective feeling of urgency to dramatically improve outcomes for our children.


From what I’ve seen over the past 13 years, the most important (unmentionable) cause is the powerful influence the teachers union exerts on district decisions through its very strong collective bargaining contract and control of a majority of board directors. Both are powerful obstacles to the critical changes that are needed if the district is ever to achieve its mission of providing our children with a “world class education” (e.g., like getting weak teachers out of Jeffco classrooms and linking higher pay to improved district academic performance).

And after the 2023 election, the teachers union now controls all five seats on the Jeffco Board of Education.

Will Team Dorland succeed in turning around the district? The past thirty years of Jeffco history says the odds are against them. But for the sake of our children, our employers, and our property values, we should all hope they do.

Tom Coyne is a business executive, former member of the Jeffco District Accountability Committee, and former Chair of the Wheat Ridge High School Accountability Committee. His wife, Susan Miller, was elected to the Jeffco Board of Education in November 2019 and is not running for reelection this year. Their four children all attended district-run Jeffco schools. These are solely Coyne’s views.



Tom Coyne

Co-Founder, K12 Accountability Inc. New book: "K-12 On the Brink: Why America's Education System Fails to Improve, and Only Business Leadership Can Fix It"