Outgoing Mesa County Valley School District 51 Superintendent Diana Sirko sat down with The Daily Sentinel’s Nathan Deal for a Q&A to discuss her tenure as superintendent, her 47 years in education and where the district will go next. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deal: What compelled you to accept the superintendent role in District 51 in the wake of the district’s separation from prior Superintendent Ken Haptonstall?
Sirko: What compelled me to do it? It was insanity, I guess. When I left as superintendent of Roaring Fork, my husband and I moved here because he was coaching here in the community and I was teaching at CMU and, even when I was the supe (superintendent) in Roaring Fork, I had been teaching a class on and off at CMU, a class here and a class there, because it’s just not that far from there to here. I had a lot of students in my masters classes who were working on their masters in education who are employees here, and they’d say, “C’mon, you’ve got to apply here.”
I had stepped in in other similar circumstances in my career just because I had a lot of experience. At that point, I was into at least 20-something years as a superintendent. Obviously, I really was impressed by what I saw with the students and what their understanding was of some of the things the district was trying to accomplish, so I threw my hat in the ring. I’ve always loved being a superintendent. That’s why I’ve been terrible at retirement, because I retire and unretire. I threw my hat in the ring because I had the opportunity to work with several people from D51 as students in my class and had received a lot of encouragement from them. I’d jumped in in a similar circumstance in Roaring Fork. The difference there was the gentleman I was replacing, his wife had had a terrible accident, so he had resigned because he wanted to make sure he could focus on his wife and her health and their family. When he left there, their board called me because I had just retired from the state department and said, “Would you come be our interim?” I had jumped into those circumstances before.
I felt like I was happy to jump in, and I’ve always loved the job and loved the area, so I thought, “What the heck? I’ll give it a whirl. If they’re interested in me, we’ll do what we can do.” Obviously, I got the job, but the idea was that it was an interesting challenge, but at the same time, the district had a good reputation and we knew there were some things that we would need to address, but I felt like just knowing the people that I was having in class and the different people I knew from the district that all of us working together, we could make this happen.
How do you feel that your administration handled budgetary issues inherited from the Haptonstall administration?
We reduced some of the new positions that had been put in place because the of overall cost of it. I wasn’t part of the process in putting it together. I think every one of us has kind of overestimated what we could accomplish. I’ve known Ken Haptonstall a long time, and he’s a good superintendent; he had been a superintendent in Parachute. The things that happened were just because of the volume of what they were trying to accomplish. It would have been pretty hard to pull it all off without getting to some of the points that they did in terms of the overall cost of the reorganization. In an organization this size, it’s really easy for one piece to be more costly than you thought, so you really have to just watch your budget tight, tight, tight, because of the volume of the district.
The COVID pandemic had to be the most confusing thing to navigate in your career. How do you feel the school district adapted to it? How proud are you about how you were able to lead the district through the pandemic?
I’m really proud of what we did and the most important part of that was that it wasn’t any one person. It was all of us together saying, “We want to keep our kids in school.” Brian (Hill) was a great team member. We put together a committee called the Keeping Schools Open Task Force, and we had doctors on there, members from the community, several teachers and other employees from across the system, as well as board members, so we spent a lot of the summer trying to put together a plan of action to keep schools open. Obviously, none of us had ever dealt with an international pandemic before, and even in as many years as I’ve had, I felt like a lot of situations I’ve already dealt with, but that was not one of them I had already dealt with.
Supes across the region, we all talk to each other a lot, and some of the other districts would say, “Diana, when you have your plan ready, will you send it to us?” Moffat, Delta, a bunch of other districts used our plan and adapted it to their needs, as well. As they say, it takes a village, and it was a classic example of that. Our parents trusted us, which was really helpful, and even though it was very frustrating for them at times when we’d have to quarantine a whole school or that kind of thing, there’s an element of luck there. I hate to say “luck” just because we really carefully considered everything before we put it in place, so it wasn’t that much luck, but it was a lot of planning and a lot of people working together to bring everyone together. The health department was unbelievably helpful; we would meet with them weekly. It was a labor of love by many to say, “We know our kids do better when they’re in school.”
When the governor had shut stuff down on March 17, many of our kids were trying to learn at home and parents would call us and say, “This is not working. My child’s frustrated.” We knew we needed to do something different than what we were doing with schools being shut down. It was one of those things where you take a leap of faith and think, ‘We know that we can do this if we have a solid enough plan,’ and we worked with our nursing department; Tanya Marvin and her staff and Katie McKew, they were incredible, so it was really everybody working together, and when everyone’s rolling in the same direction, it’s amazing what you can accomplish.
Our teachers were incredible in terms of a leap of faith to trust us because, in many districts, when districts talked about going back, teachers said, “We won’t do it. We’ll strike if you do it.” Other districts would call me and go, “How did you pull that off without a strike?” I went, “Our teachers wanted to go back from day one.” I got emails from teachers from the very beginning saying, “Please, please, Diana, you’ve got to get us back in school.” Everyone put kids first, which is the most important thing we should be doing, and we worked together and our parents supported us. It really was this incredible collaborative effort to get kids in school and keep them in school. We had different protocols so that, if someone got sick, how did you do that, who did we quarantine, who didn’t we, those kinds of things.
How did you deal with the pressure of a position where parents and community members judge every decision you make? One instance of backlash was when you floated the idea of having drive-thru graduations for students in 2020.
That one was a real bomb. We worked together with our senior leadership team, the senior leaders of the school district, where we would look at a situation, and there were several districts doing drive-thru graduations across the country, so we thought, “That sounds like an interesting idea,” and man, we got our shorts burned on that one pretty fast. People just said, “No, that’s a terrible idea.” We lucked out because we were able to do a graduation ceremony at Suplizio, and most districts across the whole state had to cancel theirs. Our health department, we really sat with them and looked at, “OK, what are the parameters that would make a graduation during the early stages of a pandemic successful and safe?” Suplizio was a good place to do it because it’s big enough that you could really spread people out.
Part of all of this is making your best educated guess, getting experts, looking at medical people and saying, “OK, do you think this would work? Would that work?” — working with our principals. It really was everyone working together to say, “OK, what’s our end goal here? What are we trying to do? What are the pluses and what are the minuses? What do we have to watch out for?” There’s an element of luck in all of it, too, because when we did the graduation ceremonies at Suplizio, it went so smoothly, and the parents were so grateful that we had kids in a typical ceremony. It was a labor of love, in a way, because we didn’t want our kids to do without it. I can’t tell you how many phone calls I got from other supes across the state going, “How did you do that? How did you guys pull that off?” and I said, “Our health department approved it. We had a very solid plan and they really helped us develop that plan and our physicians and our Keep Schools Open Task Force.” It really does take a village, and we saw that first-hand during the whole pandemic.
I have some emails that were pretty awful, but I get it. It’s their child. There’s not much more that’s important to you than your child. We get where the intensity was coming from. There were times when you wanted to go, “C’mon, folks, we didn’t invent this thing.” I think it’s just a natural thing because when you’re worried about your child being OK, it gives you all kinds of different emotions where you probably look back later on and regret it. I did hear from some people who said, “We’re sorry if we were a little rough on you during that time,” and others who said, “You deserved it, Diana.” It was an interesting study in human behavior.
There’s been some issues with teacher retention in the district, especially with COVID impacting enrollment. What’s your take on the teaching and enrollment situation that you’re leaving behind?
We’re a reflection of what you see happening across the state and, really, the country, but certainly in Colorado. Most districts saw their overall enrollment drop. They saw many of their teachers say, “I’ve had all the fun I can stand.” From day one, our teachers were like, “Please get our kids back in school,” so it’s an interesting message. There are a lot of people who have left the profession, but there’s also a lot of people who stayed and hunkered down and did even more so that kids could stay in school.
I would say that the declining enrollment should begin to solve itself a little bit, because what we found out was, for instance, when we started adding up where kids are, we were like, “What happened to these kids? Where did they go?” So our truancy officers went out and visited the neighborhoods and said, “Do you know where your neighbors went?” and some people said, ‘I don’t know. One day, they just packed up and went to visit family somewhere else.” I think the pandemic also caused our families to do stuff that were pretty, in some cases, spur of the moment because they were nervous and they wanted to go be with family where they felt more comfortable.
Having never been through a pandemic before, I kept thinking, “What’s the message from this?” and I think we all learned a lot. A lot of that was about flexibility. It may be a difficult card, but if it’s the card you’re dealt, you’ve got to play it. For us, the most important thing was to make sure our kids were in school wherever possible. When we went back, we were the largest system to have our kids in school, but we knew there would be some families that were very nervous about sending their kids back to school, so we took the Grand River Academy program and added 300 new students to there by adding an additional online program. Our teachers helped us greatly with that because they were flexible and said, “I’ll teach in that program.” It was such a wonderful example of people focusing on a common goal and working together to achieve that. I think of the number of hours where we met and said, “OK, what’s not working and what’s working?” You just had to dissect everything. I learned a lot and, most of all, I was so proud of everybody. The saying is “The main thing is to not forget the main thing,” and that’s what they did all the way through. It was pretty incredible.”
How much pride do you take in the new Grand Junction High School being approved during your tenure, especially with the groundbreaking ceremony on the first day of the final month of your career?
It really is one of the best things I’ve seen and been part of in my career. Part of it was that you had (former Colorado Mesa University) President Tim Foster, you had all these people who were really bought in, and so many of them either had their kids graduate from there or they personally had graduated from there, so the ties that our community had to Grand Junction High School, which was their first high school, helped us greatly. It was everybody working together toward the same common goal, and the percentage it passed by was incredible. I think everybody was really focused on what we needed to do for kids, and it was an important point in keeping Grand Junction as a community viable because the growth is in other parts of our county, so it was making sure people didn’t forget that we want to keep these schools as a viable part of our history and heritage as a community.
Do you ever see a day coming in which District 51 will need to open a fifth high school?
We work with Shannon Bingham, who does our demographics. We have been looking and we watch the housing trends very carefully and where the new sites are coming in, etc. There is a plan of action around if we would need a fifth high school, where we would put it. We do have some land in the Applewood area if we would need to build a high school. You also have to watch what’s going on with the development and where people are building, etc. We do have plans of action around that. We’re not ready to put them in place, obviously.
Central needs to have its north wing replaced. That wing’s had its best days, so that’s probably going to be one of the next projects. I don’t know when the district’s decision will be made, but a decision will be made about what’s next. There’s things like that where you’ve got a high school there that’s pretty solid; it just has one part of it that’s not solid. It’s safe enough to have kids in now, but if you wanted to add to it, you could do that without really asking too much from our taxpayers because we know we have a conservative community. They’re not anxious to pump in a lot of dollars, but they’re willing to, as we saw with Junction High School. If they can see that we have a clear plan of action and it makes a lot of sense, they’re willing to help buy in.
What are some of the biggest challenges in the district being inherited by Brian Hill, your successor?
I think it’s the typical stuff in terms of watching your student enrollment. If it continues to decline, that will be very difficult. I kind of think it won’t continue to decline, as we’re going to see, hopefully across the state, enrollment going back up. I think the biggest challenges could be declines. Also, there’s the reduction of the number of people who want to go into education right now. It’s a hard way to make a living. It’s a lot of work. I think it’s about trying to convince people that it’s something that’s really worthwhile.
For me, from the time I was probably in fifth grade, I knew I wanted to be a teacher, so it’s not a hard sell for me, but it’s been a hard sale for others. I think we’re seeing more and more people go into education, and having CMU here is a great blessing because we can partner with them and their teacher ed program to help us keep our opportunities open to add new staff. I think some of the biggest challenges are going to be enrollment and staffing classrooms.
How hopeful are you that the district’s transition to Hill will be smooth?
I’m very confident that Brian will do very well. When I was hiring an assistant supe four years ago, I saw that he was very talented. In his interview questions, he had done so much homework. He had watched every single board meeting for the four years before the interviews, so he really knew the district coming in. We were impressed with him from the very beginning. His experience in Austin also helps because he’s been in a large system. I’m very confident that things will go well. We have great, solid people in our instructional department … you’ve got a lot of solid, talented people who are here trying to really improve and enhance the quality of our educational system and continue doing that. You’ll continue to see that. I’m not worried at all.
Assuming you don’t plan to unretire for a third time, what’s next for you and your husband, Mike?
For us, it’s having time to go watch our grandkids play softball in Nebraska and we have another granddaughter in Aspen — our son and his daughter live in Aspen — so just being able to have the luxury of going and visiting your grandkids, watching their activities. We’re anxious to kind of travel around and see where it takes you because the nice thing is that you don’t have to have a plan, really, other than a general understanding of where you want to go.
We plan on keeping our house here. We bought a small place in Pensacola, Florida, so we’ll be there part-time, too. We’ve looked at some different vacation trips. My husband’s been very clear that he will not take a cruise. At the same time, we have other friends who have done, like, a small river cruise down the Danube (River) and visiting those countries. We’ll have to see what our budget looks like, but we’re just looking forward to not having to be anywhere, where you can wake up and think, “I don’t have to be anywhere today.” Being able to have the luxury of making a decision to say, “Let’s just go to Denver today and watch this or go watch a game,” those kinds of things.
My husband grew up in Pittsburgh, so he’s a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, and we’ll go watch some of their games and some SEC football games since we’ll be down in the Florida area.
When you look back on your time as the District 51 superintendent and your career in general, what stands out to you?
I’ve loved it here very much. I think that the community was very welcoming to me and the staff was incredible. I loved it and it’s hard for me to leave, but it’s one of those situations where it’s time. Mike and I are both in our late 60s, so it’s time for us to get to traveling if we’re going to do it. We’re just anxious to see what the future brings.
I’m still going to teach a class or two for CMU. They do those weekend programs where, two weeks in a row, you’ll have the same class and then that class is done, so you can kind of hit and run with your teaching. I’ve loved working at CMU, too, but I love the district.
I think the people here have been unbelievable. I get stopped in the store all the time with people just saying, “Thanks for all you did,” and I always say, “It was all of us,” and it really is. If you don’t have everybody working together in a system this size, you can’t accomplish anything. It really was parents believing in us and making a leap of faith, as well as all of our staff and support staff. When we said we needed more PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), the people who do all that ordering made it happen. It was pretty incredible how much everybody was heading in the same direction, which is unusual.