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Board executive sessions bill bares partisan divisions

Updated Feb. 13 –  The House gave final approval to the bill on a 34-31 vote Thursday.

A spirited Republican attack on Wednesday failed to stop preliminary floor approval of a bill that would require school boards to fully record their closed-door meetings, including conversations with attorneys about legal matters.

While supporters of the bill, House Bill 14-1110, have been circumspect about its origins, it’s widely assumed that it was at least partly inspired by the Douglas County school board’s extensive use of executive sessions.

Current law allows school boards to stop recording executive sessions when legal issues are discussed with lawyers. In addition to requiring continuous recording, HB 14-1110 would require boards to maintain a log of topics discussed during closed meetings, including the approximate amount of time spent on each issue.

The idea behind the bill is that individuals or groups who suspect a board is abusing the use of executive sessions could ask a judge to review recordings to determine if that had happened. In general, state law limits executive sessions to discussion of personnel matters, real estate deals and protected discussions between a board and its lawyer.

Republicans took several lines of attack. They criticized the bill as an assault on attorney-client privilege (a view shared by the Colorado Association of School Boards), tried to amend the bill to bar discussion of contract negotiations in executive session and suggested the requirement should apply to all levels of local government.

Those proposed amendments have been rebuffed by majority Democrats.

Wednesday’s debate stretched about 90 minutes, with nearly an hour of that consumed by Colorado Springs Republican Rep. Bob Gardner, a lawyer famous at the Capitol for long speeches.

Gardner alluded to the Douglas County situation, saying the bill “is about a fight between and education association and an education reform movement. That’s what it’s really about.”

Urging adoption of an amendment that would have opened collective bargaining discussions, Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, asked, “Will you stand with parents, students and teachers or will you stand with big labor and collective bargainers?”

Democrats, of course, were having none of it. They defeated McNulty’s amendment and passed the bill on a voice vote. A final, roll-call vote has to be taken, perhaps as early as Thursday, before the bill goes to the Senate. It’s sponsored by Rep. Cherilyn Peniston, D- Westminster.

For more background, see this story about House Education Committee debate on the bill.