Education, Featured, K-12 Transparancy, Open Records, Sherrie Peif, Thompson

Colorado Education Association looking into Thompson attorney's records

Teachers in the Thompson School District may be on summer vacation, but the teachers union that represents them is taking no breaks from a barrage of plans to weaken the board of education and vilify its attorney.

After funding a questionable online petition asking the board to renew the teachers’ contract, holding rallies, and filing grievances claiming the board’s failure to negotiate in good faith, the Colorado Education Association (CEA) and its local Thompson Education Association (TEA) affiliate are now going after the board’s attorney, Brad Miller.

On May 14, CEA, acting on behalf of the TEA, filed a massive Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) request with Thompson searching for information on Miller dating back to when he was hired.

Neither TEA president Andy Crisman nor CEA president Kerrie Dallman returned requests for interviews from Complete Colorado.

In the CORA request, which was filed by CEA attorney Brooke Copass, the state teachers union asked for all records concerning the selection of Miller as attorney, and all of the following dating back to January 2014:

  • All records and recordings of meetings between Miller, the board members and/or superintendent Stan Scheer
  • Any and all records among Miller, board members, Scheer, and district staff Bill Siebers, Margaret Crespo, Gordon Jones, Stephen Towne, Daniel Maas and Michael Jones, concerning the 2014-15 teacher’s contract
  • Any and all records between school board members and all of Thompson’s administrative staff, concerning the 2014-15 teacher’s contract
  • Any and all records among Miller, board members, Scheer and district staff Bill Siebers, Margaret Crespo, Gordon Jones, Stephen Towne, Daniel Maas and Michael Jones, concerning the 2015-16 teacher’s contract
  • Any and all records between school board members and all of Thompson administrative staff, concerning the 2015-16 teacher’s contract

The request sought all records and communication that were written, electronic, or in digital format, as well as any handwritten notes.

Complete Colorado first learned of the request shortly after it was made, and requested copies of everything given to CEA. However, the process has been slow, an apparent violation of state open records laws that require requests to be filled within seven business days.

On Tuesday, after multiple requests for update, Michael Hausmann, the district’s communication director, sent Complete Colorado copies of 14 documents that had already been forwarded to CEA. He said it is unclear if there is more to come, and that the district’s internal legal team has been working with CEA to narrow its scope.

Some of the documents requested by CEA are likely covered under executive session or work product laws and cannot be released. Additionally, despite the extensive request, no cost estimates from Thompson have been forwarded to TEA or CEA as of Wednesday, Hausmann  said. The documents they were given were within the limits for no charges under Thompson’s policy, Hausmann said. Likewise, Thompson did not charge Complete for the copies.

Miller has been an education law attorney since 2000. He has worked in that capacity for several school districts. He currently also represents the board of education for the Jefferson County Public Schools.

Miller said it seems logical that a board of education would have counsel separate from the attorneys who represent the district as a whole. Jeffco budgeted for such a position long before Miller was hired.

“Since a school board is responsible to hire a superintendent, to oversee all employment in the district, to be the final appeals board in grievances and student discipline matters, to set fiscal priorities and adopt an annual budget, to respond to constituent CORA requests, to negotiate with local teacher associations and to uphold all the duties contained in Article 32 of the Colorado School Law, I think it would be absurd and negligent for a school board representing a district of any significant size not to have separate counsel when such matters arise,” Miller said.

Miller’s role in Thompson does exactly that. He also assists in the development of policy updates and conduct of the board’s statutory duties.  Because three members of the Thompson board—Lori Hvizda-Ward, Pam Howard and Denise Montagu—continue to disrupt meetings and are often unwilling to work with fellow board members Bryce Carlson, Donna Rice, Bob Kerrigan and Carl Langner, Miller has also found himself playing mediator.

“The board members are not all well-aligned,” he said. “And so I have sometimes needed to assist with basic communication and interactions between board members.”

Having someone counsel the board independently of district staff appears to be what is upsetting the union.

“There have been a number of complications this spring and summer related to the TEA’s failure to make an effort to respond to the board’s numerous requests to consider placing elements of the MOU in a handbook or policy, to consider options for a performance-pay pilot program and to engage in meaningful dialogue regarding the fact that under the old MOU, the district bore the brunt of maintaining the association’s operations – from dues deduction, to supplying substitute teachers for association members attending CEA events,” Miller said.

Thompson teachers appear to have shifted their focus from educating students to a fishing expedition that so far has turned up copies of employment handbooks they already had, copies of a contract that was never ratified, and invoices for Miller’s services since September 2014 that total slightly more than $45,000.

Miller said he recognizes not everyone will ever agree on everything, and his role has been questioned many times before.

“When I first was retained by Jeffco and Thompson, almost every one of my existing clients were subjected to extraordinarily extensive CORA requests by the CEA,” Miller said. “This included both district and charter school clients.  I suspect that the cost to the public for that effort alone was in the tens of thousands. I am unaware of any revelations emerging from that effort. To this day, Jeffco receives a constant barrage of CORA requests about my services.”

More disturbing, however, is that it’s turning into personal attacks and threats on Miller’s family. An online petition developed by CEA earlier this past spring to show support for the teachers included many ugly and mean anonymous posts, including one referring to Miller by using slang language for female genitalia.

“Hell’s fury will meet Brad,” the poster wrote. “You’re a (expletive) who hides behind law. I hope the cancer you bring to our community finds your family.”

The inappropriate comments on the petition were eventually deleted.

Miller said he can deal with the attacks on him, but attacking his family is crossing a line.

“The attacks have continued to the point where it has become routine to see false allegations and sometimes outrageous personal attacks,” Miller said. “I take pause.  I never have uttered any personal attack against anyone associated with Thompson School District.  Frankly, I do not believe that the majority board members ever have done so.  Yet at almost every meeting I attend, I am confronted by persons making wild accusations.”

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