The newly seated Board of Education members in Jefferson County Public Schools took about 90 minutes Monday to look at how to communicate with its constituents.
However, some said their actions went against the platforms upon which they based their campaigns. Those platforms included increased transparency, respect for public opinion, and a reconsideration of the board’s direct legal counsel.
Board members have said that one of their main goals is to rebuild trust, yet the previously unscheduled meeting was held in the middle of a week day while classes were in session, making it tough for employees of the district, students or working parents and community members to attend.
Board member Ali Lasell thanked the board for allowing the meeting to be streamed live.
“We all have very busy schedules,” Lasell said. “At the board meeting all of us set a lot of priorities. … And everyone mentioned trust and rebuilding trust in the community. When I think of the community outreach, we create trust by being completely transparent. And this is step one of that.”
All board meetings, work sessions, teacher negotiations, and mediation sessions were streamed live during the previous board’s tenure as well.
In fact, it was the previous board that requested teacher negotiation sessions be held in public, even before the ultimate passage of Proposition 104 required it. It also required that meetings be held outside normal working hours when possible so interested parties could more easily attend. When a mediator historically used by the district refused to do so with video feeds, the former board voted to retain a new mediator.
The new board’s discussion on Monday included reaching out to district leaders and teachers, as well as to parents, local organizations, and businesses to help generate ideas for addressing district needs as the group heads into budget talks.
Member Amanda Stevens expanded on that conversation, saying members need to do the job they were elected to do. That includes making sure voters agree with changes they’ve said they want to make, which include issuing certificates of participation (COPs) for new construction, reexamine pay for performance, and paying for free all-day kindergarten for all Jeffco residents.
“I think it would be worth piggybacking on those budget forums some conversations that are broader than just the budget, allowing community members to have some dialogue and Q&A time with us,” Stevens said. “So that they understand our mission, our goals, and that we can get a gauge on some of the issues that are present in our schools, so that we are moving past campaign season and to actually serving their needs.”
Other topics the board mentioned included compensation, the pay-for-performance model in place, and district growth.
Not everyone, however, thinks the new members are as transparent as they claim to be.
Jeffco resident Donna Jack said it is ironic that a meeting aimed at having discussion on how to reach out to the community and get more input into what it wants took place without input from the community and at a time most couldn’t be there.
“A discussion on public testimony is planned at an inconvenient time, and is to take place without input from the public,” Jack said in a letter to the board prior to the meeting. “Please have all meetings on Thursday evenings at the Ed Center like already scheduled; keep the already-set, reliable, transparent, current 2015-16 meeting schedule for this school year; and keep it as easy as possible for people to listen to or attend your meetings.”
Superintendent Dan McMinimee gave the board some direction on what to consider when scheduling future meetings.
“You have to think about what night you’re having those,” McMinimee said. “Our parents are busy. They have kids that are doing a thousand other things. … They have to make time or prioritize their time.”
The board also looked at upcoming meetings and schedules for study sessions and regular meetings, and how public comment relates to those meetings.
Stevens brought up that the board is scheduled to make decisions at its Dec. 10th meeting – decisions on items not previously discussed in a work session. Additionally, all these decisions are on the consent agenda.
Consent agenda items are multiple items that are usually considered routine items with minimal impact to the district that need board approval. They are bundled and then voted on as a group of items with no public discussion. McMinimee said his staff is usually a good gauge for whether or not public comment is needed on a topic.
McMinimee said it was his goal to supply the board with enough information about those items to make an informed decision before Dec. 10. He said because the group is new, if they believed one or more items needed to be pulled from the consent agenda, they could do that instead.
“Maybe that’s a question that we have at every one of our agenda planning sessions,” McMinimee said. “‘How much of an impact do you think this is going to have in terms of public comment?’ I don’t think it’s good business to try to bury things in the consent agenda. I think that’s bad for you, it’s bad for us, in terms of talking about transparency.”
The items scheduled for the December 10 consent agenda include mill levy certification – a process that is done every year to verify the mill levy being assessed is accurate or has not changed. Bradford Elementary School is also scheduled to change from a K-6 to a K-8 school, and a charter application schedule change that would give charter schools 18 months to open from date of approval rather than the current 10-month scenario.
Board president Ron Mitchell said it wasn’t his intent to reverse every decision that the prior board made but he wants to review a policy put in place in November concerning which meetings would allow public comment.
McMinimee said it was the intent of the previous board to put in place a policy that would not allow decisions made in any meeting without public comment because there are certain situations where study sessions require action items. But McMinimee agreed that the new board should look at it and clarify anything in the policy that might be confusing.
“We’d like to have a policy that works well for our community but serves the needs of our board as well,” Mitchell said.
Sheila Atwell from Jeffco Students First said that given all the cries for transparency and the very important nature of agenda setting, she hopes the new board will do a better job of scheduling future meetings so the community can attend and discuss decisions before making them.
Finally, Stevens again brought up her desire to look at how the board will handle its legal advice. Stevens wants the discussion of board legal advice to be discussed publicly. Previous board attorney Brad Miller resigned after the election.
During the election, much of the recall rhetoric included Miller’s cost when the district already had legal counsel. However, it has become clear that the new board understands there will be times when it needs that advice and that will cost the district additional money.
“Because legal representation and the ways that district legal advice and board legal advice will converge and diverge, (district counsel) Craig Hess will occasionally slip into a new role,” Stevens said. “And at other times, we will want someone who is not also district legal advice.”
McMinimee said the plan was already to have Jim Branum the district’s lead attorney from Caplan and Ernest give a general discussion about the topic. It is up to the board whether to have this presentation in an executive session or in open meeting. If it is open, the board will still have the flexibility at the end to go into executive session to discuss specific legal items about being a board member.
“I want to be deliberate as a board that we are transparent with our rationale and there is a common understanding among the public when it’s legitimate for conversations to happen in a closed room,” Stevens said, “and how we intend to use that to minimize its impact and practice transparency.”
Atwell called an apparent affiliation with the Colorado Association of Schools Boards (CASB) as well as the topic of legal counsel into question.
“When did the board decide to rejoin CASB?” she said, adding it appears that Mitchell and Stevens have already attended a CASB meeting and made a decision to not only have a board retreat but also attend CASB’s annual meeting at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs next weekend.
“Was the meeting at CASB posted?” she questioned. “Did it happen during the campaign or after the election? How much of our tax payer dollars will be spent by this new board staying at the Broadmoor? Will there be a public discussion about rejoining CASB?
She also questioned the cost and circumstances of Branum’s presentation.
“We certainly hope that any discussions would be held in public given the clamor over transparency. It is critical that the public understand precisely why a school board might need (its) own council. Going into executive session would be a huge step backward.”