During the most recent meeting of the Douglas County School District Board of Education, three members continued their public attack on the board’s president, prompting a student representative to call their concerns minor.
In the end, a failed resolution confirming the resignation of board member Doug Benevento and detailing the process for selecting a replacement means about 45,000 constituents in District E will be without a representative for a least two additional weeks. Factoring in the statutory maximum 60-day vacancy timeline, that means the seat might not be filled until late November or early December.
Benevento abruptly resigned on Aug. 17 with a letter to The Denver Post announcing his decision. That same day he sent an email to board President Meghann Silverthorn that simply said: “Meghann per our conversation this morning, I am resigning my board seat effective immediately.”
Silverthorn immediately notified the board of Benevento’s decision and started working with the district’s attorney to draft a resolution accepting the resignation and outlining the district’s process for selecting a replacement.
The replacement would hold the seat until the November 2017 election, at which time he or she would be required to run for election.
Both the resignation and the process were questioned by members David Ray, Wendy Vogel, and Anne-Marie Lemieux, with each alleging violations of board policy or law.
The first request for changes came from Ray, who proposed a policy change that would prohibit anyone appointed to fill Benevento’s seat from running for the seat in 2017, asserting that the seat itself is term limited not the person. School board members may not serve more than eight years in Colorado.
“We’ve seen lots of concerns from our public that this is a strategy,” Ray said. “Whether it is or not, I haven’t drawn a conclusion, but I think we need to have a policy that protects from that appearance.”
Ray then argued that anyone appointed to the seat would have an advantage over others at election time.
“They’ve served on the board,” Ray said. “They can be advertised as an incumbent, giving them an unfair edge that the other candidates won’t have. … I think we’ve seen a pattern to where this premature resignation occurs.”
The district’s legal counsel, Dan Domenico, confirmed it’s the person occupying the seat that is term limited rather than the seat itself. He also said that trying to bind an individual or prohibit them from running for office would be very problematic under state law.
Domenico said statutes lay out pretty clearly the process for replacing a vacant seat. He said the board could consider Ray’s proposal as one of its criteria, but could not make it binding.
“I would have trouble, frankly, saying that is something the board could make, a binding limitation on who could fill this,” Domenico said.
“Nowhere in my wording did I say I would prohibit from,” Ray said in response. “Simply that the selected nominee accepts the term-limited status of the seat he or she is filling.”
The amendment failed on a 4-2 vote, with Ray and Lemieux voting in favor. Vogel said that while she is also concerned about the manipulation, she didn’t think this was the right way to protect against it.
Most of the time was spent debating how, when, and to whom Benevento offered his resignation.
Ray, Vogel, and Lemieux took issue with the fact that Benevento didn’t send his one sentence resignation email to the entire board. They also were frustrated that Silverthorn and Domenico drew up the resolution without consulting the entire board.
The resolution was taken from board policy, Silverthorn said. But the trio focused on trying to paint a picture of deception, continuing to imply that because Benevento’s reason for resigning didn’t satisfy them and arguing that the departure was designed to give the appointed replacement an unfair advantage in the next election.
Vogel argued that the three newly elected board members “represent the most current will of the people of Douglas County.” She also said, “Because we haven’t had the benefit of a reason for why this resignation was given, people can only come to the conclusion that it is a manipulation to get a certain board member in place that is favorable and basically will get a free year of campaigning.”
Vogel questioned Silverthorn at length about her role in Benevento’s resignation pertaining to when she first learned he was considering leaving, leading Silverthorn to believe Vogel was accusing her of orchestrating the timing to benefit her agenda.
Silverthorn said Benevento had previously told her he was considering quitting and she encouraged him to remain until the end of his term. She said she learned of his resignation the morning the editorial came out in The Denver Post and no sooner.
“If you are insinuating that I encouraged him to stick around only until an interim superintendent was in place, that is false,” Silverthorn said. “So if you would like to continue to level that, please know that is false.”
Visibly frustrated by the proceedings, board member Jim Geddes asked the minority members to refrain from leveling unfounded accusations.
“You are leveling criticisms that are unfounded, unfair, and are not going to benefit us moving forward in doing a good job as directors of this district, and I ask you to no longer do that,” Geddes said.
Under state law and board policy, applicants must meet several requirements including residency and background checks, among others. The board must accept Benevento’s resignation before it can post the vacancy. Once posted, the board has 60 days from the date they accepted the vacancy to appoint a replacement. If the board cannot agree on a candidate the president must appoint someone without board approval.
Vogel questioned Domenico at length about the 60-day clock to seat a new board member, arguing it did not start until the resolution on how to fill that seat was passed. Domenico made it clear that was not the case.
“If you adopt the resolution, then you go with that, if its a deadlock for whatever reason then the 60 days continue to run is the only point I’m trying to make,” Domenico said.
The item was scheduled for 20 minutes but took an hour and included a heated debate between Silverthorn and Vogel.
Vogel would not give a specific reason for her lack of support. In fact, she said she had no concerns.
Silverthorn attempted several times to get an answer from Vogel as to what would win her yes vote on the resolution, giving her several opportunities to tell her what she needed to do or change to get her support.
“If we bring this resolution back before the board at any given point, what would remove your concerns about it,” Silverthorn said. “You voted no for a reason on it tonight, so what would remove your concerns?”
Vogel said to follow board policy and the law. Silverthorn pushed harder.
“What exactly would need to be reworded for you to support it,” Silverthorn said.
Vogel responsed she didn’t like the fact that she didn’t actually see Benevento’s resignation until the night of the meeting.
Silverthorn reminded her she was notified by Silverthorn of such on Aug. 17 and read his reasons in the editorial in the Denver Post.
“Now that you’ve seen it, and the resolution as written will you support it?” Silverthorn asked, adding she wanted to know exactly what following policy and the law meant to Vogel. “The residents of district E deserve to have representation,” Silverthorn said. “If you can not articulate what that means, what can I do to remove your concerns so this passes?”
Vogel still did not specify what she wanted, and she made no promises. She wanted to discuss her past issues with Silverthorn.
“You are voting no for a reason,” Silverthorn said. “If you are punishing me for what you consider to be my lack of following policy and the law, you can go ahead and say that. But if you have a concern with this resolution specifically, I’d like to know what those are so we can get them resolved and move forward.”
“I have no concerns with it as it is,” was all Vogel said.
At one point, the board’s non-voting student representative Alec Greven weighed in on the uproar.
“We are getting bogged down in the technicalities once again,” Greven said. “We’re talking about when the resignation got submitted, to who, at what time, at what date. The problem with that is I look at the resignation letter, which just got read, and the fact remains that director Benevento resigned and we need to fill that position. … The topic we need to discuss is who we’re going to fill that with, and what’s the policy to fill that with. Those are the questions we need to focus on. Not these minor technicalities that we’re looking at.”
Although they began their remarks with praise for Greven’s involvement, both Lemeiux and Vogel took issue with Greven’s assertion.
“These aren’t minor things,” Vogel said. “This is a big deal.”
Lemeiux added she “took an oath to uphold the policies” before questioning Greven’s understanding of the issue.
“I can see how frustrated you are listening to this and all of this discussion and all of these whereas and all these rules and all these laws,” she told the high school student.
Late Wednesday, the district posted notice of a special meeting for 3:30 p.m. on today. Benevento’s resignation is the only topic on the agenda. If the board continues to not accept Benevento’s resignation, he will automatically lose his seat after failing to show for three consecutive regular meetings.