School superintendent leads year of healing |

School superintendent leads year of healing

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado
Dominique Taylor/Vail DailyJohn Pacheco, interim superintendent for the Eagle School District, prepares to leave his position to make room for the new superintendent, believing he came to the job at the time when there was nowhere for the school district to go but up, he said Friday.

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” John Pacheco’s year in Eagle County Schools was sort of like a final exam for a seasoned superintendent.

Pacheco said he had to use every ounce of his 36-plus years of education experience to survive the dynamic and emotional situation he walked into about a year ago as interim superintendent.

He saw a lot of hurt feelings over the large number of administrators who had left, anxiety over the pay-for-performance system, low morale, high teacher turnover, and, overall, a staff and community that didn’t feel like it was being listened to, Pacheco said.

“There was a lot of work that needed to be done ” more work than I realized before coming in,” Pacheco said. “If I didn’t have that experience, I don’t know how I would have handled it.”

But, by all accounts, it was a productive year, and the school district turned itself around. Talk to parents and school district staff, and they’ll quickly point to Pacheco as the big, defining factor in the school district’s dramatic change.

Pacheco will say good-bye in the next week, and the new superintendent, Sandra Smyser, will start in July.

At Pacheco’s last school board meeting this past week, board president Scott Green said hadn’t had much hope, when the school year began, that an interim superintendent could accomplish much. Pacheco though, showed him otherwise. He rolled up his sleeves and made things work.

“What he accomplished was unbelievable for one year,” said Phil Onofrio, chief financial officer for the school district.

Pacheco says his big goal was to “heal” the district and build trust, and he went about that by becoming a very visible, in-the-trenches superintendent ” someone who you could expect to see giving presentations at schools and rotary clubs, meeting with teachers to talk about salaries and curriculum and visiting parents at home to answer tough questions about the school district.

“I have nothing but a great deal of respect for him ” I think we were very lucky to get him this year,” said parent Doreen Somers. “He was very insightful with his experience and always open for communication. I always found him to be available to answer questions.”

Pacheco says he wanted the entire school district staff to be a part of major decisions. When he decided that the pay system needed to be studied and reformed, it was done by a wide variety of people ” teachers, principals, maintenance workers and community members.

So, when Pacheco presented those pay changes to each of the schools, the entire staff saw that yes, they had a place at the table. They helped make the decisions.

“We needed to have collaboration ” that was the missing link,” Pacheco said. “It really is a matter of listening and trying to understand what’s going on.”

Another big step was reorganizing the structure of the school district leadership, Pacheco said. It may not seem like a big thing, but it made a lot of difference to redefine job titles, put people in the right place and make decisions based on what will help students, even in areas like transportation and food service.

“Now we base everything on student learning ” every part of the district supports that,” Pacheco said.

While a lot of progress has been made, many of the challenges Pacheco found in his first month here are still in the school district, like the achievement gap that separates English-speaking students and their Spanish-speaking peers.

He hopes the school district continues to work on those areas, and continues to reach out to its teachers and community to make decisions.

Pacheco said he’ll likely take some time off after he leaves to spend more time with his grandchildren and do some fishing. He doubts though that he’ll be able to go too long without finding some way to get involved in education again.

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 970-748-2955 or

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