There were few dry eyes and even fewer empty seats inside a packed Jefferson County school board meeting on Nov. 7, as supporters of Cindy Stevenson showed up to hear the district's longtime superintendent announce her retirement.
“The past 12 years have been the best years of my life," said Stevenson, often wiping away tears, while announcing that she would retire on June 30, when her contract expires.
"This is an exceptional school district, and it's been my honor to lead an amazing staff of talented people."
Stevenson received a standing ovation at the conclusion of her remarks.
Stevenson, who was appointed to her position in 2002, will retire as Jefferson County Public Schools' longest-serving superintendent. A product of the school district that she has led for more than 12 years, Stevenson has worked as a teacher, a principal, or as a member of the superintendent's office during a span of four decades.
School board member Jill Fellman recalled meeting Stevenson for the first time in 1989, when Stevenson taught at Arvada's Little Elementary School and Fellman was a first-year teacher at Moore Middle School.
"I just kept thinking when I was that first-year teacher, 'I want to be like Cindy Stevenson,'" Fellman said after the board meeting.
Stevenson was named the 2010 Colorado Superintendent of the Year, and was a finalist for the national award that year. Jeffco students have consistently scored above the state average in proficiency test scores during Stevenson's tenure. And she was an instrumental campaigner for mill levy overrides that Jeffco voters supported in 2010, which allowed the district to stop the financial bleeding that was taking place during the economic downturn.
"Her absence will be felt across the district," said Patti DeLorenzo, a principal at Lakewood's Devinny Elementary School. "As hard as it may be, administrators will continue to work toward your vision."
But not everything has been sunny for Stevenson as of late. She was a key supporter of Amendment 66, the school finance tax hike that voters flatly rejected on Nov. 5.
And Stevenson took a lot of heat from parents for her support of a company with whom the district was to partner with to store student information as part of a data dashboard — inBloom, a Georgia-based nonprofit that has been the subject of national controversy over privacy and security concerns.
After an outcry from parents, Stevenson announced in September that that she would allow students to opt out of the data dashboard, after she had previously said that doing so would compromise the dashboard's data.
On the night of Stevenson's retirement announcement, the board voted to sever ties with inBloom, altogether.
And Stevenson's announcement comes at a time when the district is going through significant personnel and political changes. With conservatives about to control the school board, it would not have been a given that Stevenson's contract would have been renewed any way.
Board members-elect Julie Williams, Ken Witt and John Newkirk handily won their races on Nov. 5 and their collective conservative ideology will surely mean a change of policy direction for the 5-member board.
But Stevenson said after the meeting that the board's upcoming changes played no role in her decision to step aside.
"You don't leave because it's difficult," she said. "You leave because it's the right time and you've done good work, and you've got strong people around you and they can carry on. And if I was going to leave because of tough times, boy I could name much harder times."