Education, Jeffco

Jeffco school board president addresses concerns over new board's first agenda

File photo - Todd Shepherd
File photo – Todd Shepherd

It’s been just under a month since an entirely new board was elected to govern Jefferson County Public Schools, and the five new board members have not wasted any time when it comes to undoing the work of the previous board.

With their first regular meeting agenda out, it looks like they are also skirting a number of their campaign promises. All 14 action items are on the consent agenda – a process used to approve several items at once without discussion or individual motions and that do not require an explanation as to the reason.

An executive session to discuss open meetings law effectively closes the door on the public.

Board president Ron Mitchell said Wednesday, however, that he has rethought the executive session, and another board member is likely to ask for one of the items to be pulled from the consent agenda and placed back on the regular agenda where it will get full discussion and public comment.

The executive session item is ironic in that it is “to receive legal advice on the Colorado Open Meetings Law and the Colorado Open Records Act.” It also includes discussion on “conflicts of interest and standards of conduct for local public officials, and relevant board and district policies related to same.”

Mitchell has changed the plan for how to handle the executive session, he said.

“We realized that we have created an issue for some people,” he said. “So we have developed a compromise.”

Mitchell did not say specifically what changed his mind, but a story that appeared in the Canyon Courier on Tuesday brought a lot of scrutiny to a new board that was voted in partly because opponents accused the previous board of lack of transparency.

Mitchell said the board will get the training on Colorado Open Records Act laws and open meetings laws in public, and then he will ask for an executive session to ask some specific legal questions that he believes are subject to attorney/client privilege.

“I want us to do what is right to help us serve this district,” he said. “I don’t want to create suspicion.”

Holding the training in public was discussed in depth at the Nov. 30 meeting. At that time, superintendent Dan McMinimee told the board that Jim Branum of Boulder-based Caplan and Earnest was willing to hold the training either in open or behind closed doors, but Mitchell said Branum later urged him to do it behind closed doors. Jeff Roberts, Executive Director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said while there may be specific legal questions that they could put under the umbrella of an executive session, the overall training is not one of them.

“Open meetings law says that it’s OK to go into an executive session to get advice from an attorney on specific legal questions,” Roberts said. “I think the key word here is specific. If they are getting general training about CORA and open meetings and sort of good government types of things that they need to abide by, that should be done in open session.”

Roberts said if questions come up during the open session that are specific the board is always free to call the executive session afterward.

“I bet there will be specific questions that come up,” Roberts said. “It just doesn’t seem appropriate for training to occur in an executive session.”

He said he also doesn’t understand why board members wouldn’t want to use this as a learning tool for their constituents as well.

“That is a fantastic opportunity for the people attending the meeting to learn as well,” Roberts said. “Why not also help educate your public to this, not just you?”

Also questionable on the agenda is all 14 items up for action are on the consent agenda.

Examples of typical consent items include approving the minutes of a previous meeting, final approval on items board members are familiar with, routine items such as committee appointments or staffing, among other items that don’t have a large impact on the district.

The agenda includes changes to the grade configuration of Bradford Primary and Intermediate School, as well as a roughly $300,000 contract.

Although the district has had several public input opportunities and the district has been discussing Bradford for several years, the new board members have not discussed it or heard public testimony on the issue.

Mitchell said one board member will likely ask for Bradford to be pulled off the consent agenda. He did not identify which board member and made it clear he did not know if that member would have enough votes.

“I can’t guarantee what’s going to happen,” he said. “I don’t know what the outcome will be, but I can tell you at least one colleague will try to get the votes to pull that off the agenda.”

He has made arrangements for principals and staff who worked on the project to be at the meeting in case that happens.

At its first work session Nov. 30, the board discussed with Superintendent Dan McMinimee whether or not the Bradford decision should be a consent agenda item. Amanda Stevens took it one step further and said she wanted to make sure the board was doing what it promised – making sure the public was confident the board was well informed on the decisions it was making.

McMinimee said the items on the consent agenda were there for timing purposes, but also said the board could pull them off and have a full discussion if the members so choose.

“What you are doing in effect at that moment is also opening that up for public comment,” McMinimee said. “… The other option is to just have them be a general agenda item.”

He also acknowledged that there is a group who wants more public input on the Bradford changes.

The $293,000 contract for temporary classrooms at West Woods and Meiklejohn elementary schools was included in the Capital Improvement Program by the previous board, but has not had any public discussion by the board. The bids for the package were only received by the district on Nov. 24.

Mitchell said he was confident staff had done its due diligence and that board members had enough information to keep it on the consent calendar.

“Once the agenda is set, each board receives board documents for each and every agenda item,” he said.

If board members have questions, they can either call Mitchell or McMinimee to ask for clarification, he said. But he believes that the board has to trust its superintendent and cabinet in many situations. This is one of those, he said.

“Like most school boards, we put some confidence and faith and trust in our upper level and cabinet members to answer questions” Mitchell said. “We have to trust them, too. We can’t second guess everything our leadership brings.”

McMinimee urged the board at one point during the meeting not to bury items in the consent agenda. Stevens agreed.

“For me, the core underlying value there is transparency,” Stevens said. “It’s not necessarily only about listening to the loudest voices, but really wanting to make sure that we are doing our due diligence to hear from the families that are impacted by work and decisions that we make.”

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