Jeffco PTA president: School board violates state transparency law

The following column is reprinted with permission from the author.

By Michele Patterson
Jefferson County PTA President

Jeffco PTA believes in and advocates for both transparency and fiscal responsibility, good stewardship of taxpayer dollars, when it comes to decisions impacting our children and schools so we were shocked and appalled by what transpired at the Jeffco Board of Education meeting on December 12. Although we saw some good dialogue exchanges and collaborative decision making from the Board as a whole that evening, our three new board members made a gross error when they voted to hire an attorney – separate from the district’s representation – to represent them without discussing the cost to taxpayers or where the money for this attorney would come from, and without a formal RFP process.

Equally troubling, our three newly elected board members had already conducted interviews and chosen the attorney they would hire, in secret, without involving fellow board members Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman.  Board member John Newkirk noted that he had interviewed the attorney at the CASB Convention, days before the item even appeared on the public agenda (the attorney hire was added to the meeting agenda just two days prior to the meeting).  Dahlkemper and Fellman, sidelined, fought for public transparency, discussion, and input.  Witt, Williams, and Newkirk outright ignored them and approved the hire of attorney Brad Miller without telling the public anything about Miller, discussion of his contract, description of scope of work, or how much this service will cost all of us –  the taxpayers.

At a Thompson School District Board of Education meeting ONE DAY PRIOR to our meeting, Thompson’s board stated they were hiring the same firm that represents Jefferson County.  This implies we were under contract with Miller at least 24 hours prior to the December 12 meeting. Click here for an article on the Thompson meeting.

Colorado Sunshine Law requires that any state or local government body that meets to discuss public business or to take formal action do so in meetings that are open to the public. Under the Open Meeting Law, 24-6-402, “meeting” refers to any kind of gathering convened to discuss public business, whether in person, by telephone, electronically, or by other means of communication.

What’s alarming is this sort of behind-the-scenes decision making is exactly the kind of thing we see happening in Douglas County (see this EdNews article).  I spoke recently to a very involved Dougco parent who told me, “They [the Dougco school board] spend two hours prior to every public meeting in executive session.  Then they take their seats before the public, bring up each agenda item, and vote without any public discussion whatsoever.”

Mr. Witt, at his first meeting on November 21, said “I have no intention of being Douglas County,” and talked about his desire to be collaborative and transparent.  However, as The Denver Post recently noted: “Unfortunately, these first impressions do little to quell concerns and much to heighten them.”

Is this what we are now to expect in Jefferson County?  The actions of our board on December 12 don’t bode well for transparency or fiscal responsibility.  You can see in the video of the meeting that our new board feels an extreme sense of urgency about this hire.  Dahlkemper said that in her two years on the board they had only needed an attorney once, for an expulsion.  Given this, we must wonder what our new board is planning – what, exactly, do they need an attorney so urgently for?

Since no information is forthcoming from our school board, we had to research the attorney ourselves. Brad Miller sits on the board of the Colorado Charter School Institute and The Colorado League of Charter Schools.  Mr. Miller is also part of a company called Charter School Solutions which assists school districts with the authorization and management of charter schools, something Jeffco has handled quite well without an outside consultant.

It would seem Miller has a personal stake in representing our board when it comes to charter schools.  Shouldn’t that be deemed a conflict of interest?  You can read some of Miller’s experience and background at his firm’s website.  Additionally, Miller himself wrote an article that completely contradicts the statement our Board made about wanting to collaborate with our associations.  We feel this attorney is not the proper attorney to represent this board given the board’s publicly announced intentions and the opposing views of this attorney.

Further, Zahira Torres, from The Denver Post, reports Miller’s law firm will charge our school district a “$7,500 monthly retainer fee for services not to exceed 30 hours a month, according to a letter of engagement.”

When we know the previous board needed an attorney separate from the district only once in two years this seems excessive and wasteful.

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