Who Is In Charge

School board transparency bill jumps first hurdle

The full House will get a chance to debate a bill that seeks to put guardrails around school boards’ use of executive sessions, an issue that’s become controversial in some districts.

The House Education Committee voted 7-6 to pass House Bill 14-1110, with majority Democrats providing the votes necessary for passage and all committee Republicans voting no.

Part of the bill’s backstory is use of executive sessions by the conservative Douglas County school board and worry on the part of unions and some parent groups about new board majorities in the Jefferson County and Thompson districts. But no witnesses during the 90-minute hearing cited specific examples of abuse of executive sessions.

Sponsor Rep. Cherilyn Peniston, D-Westminster, went out of her way to avoid mentioning specific districts or alleged abuses. Among comments she made to the committee were:

  • “It’s not a bill targeted to any particular school boards.”
  • “Perhaps some school boards were misusing the executive session privilege.”
  • “I can’t give you a number.”
  • “It’s not my intention … to call out any particular district.”
  • “I know there are issues. I’ve talked to constituents.”

Here’s what the bill would do, in the words of the legislative staff summary:

Under current law, minutes must be taken whenever a local school district board of education has a public meeting, and a separate recording must be made whenever the board enters an executive session. If, in the opinion of the attorney representing the board, portions of the discussion held during an executive session constitute a privileged attorney-client communication, those portions are not recorded. This bill requires continuous recording of executive sessions, even when the discussion is claimed by the representing attorney to be privileged, or subject to protection as trial preparation material. The bill also requires a local school board to keep a privilege log to identify the approximate times the privileged discussion takes place and the nature of the communication, without revealing details of the privileged information discussed. These portions of an executive session may be recorded separately from the remaining recording of the executive session.

The idea behind the bill is that individuals or groups who suspect a board was abusing 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.

Peniston proposed a similar bill last year. But it would have applied to all local governments, not just school districts, so it died after intense lobbying by other local government groups.

Some witnesses at Monday’s hearing mentioned specific districts, but none offered details of alleged abuses.

Cindy Barnard, a prominent critic of the current Dougco board, said “on one or two occasions I have witnessed votes and decisions taken behind the veil of executive sessions.”

Jeffco parent and PTA member Shawna Fritzler complained about a recent district board decision to hire a new lawyer.

Lori Goldstein, a Northglenn High School special education teacher and Colorado Education Association member, named specific districts but was vague about details. “I’ve seen this in Jeffco. Loveland is another area of concern. I’ve heard things from Douglas County too.”

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, asked, “How many are we talking about?”

Goldstein still didn’t offer any details, saying, “There’s a possibility that there could be more … we don’t know.”

Opposing the bill was Debbie Lammers, a member of the St. Vrain school board who was representing the Colorado Association of School Boards, “This bill will seriously chill” discussions between school boards and their lawyers, she said.

Sonja McKenzie, general counsel for the Cherry Creek schools and representing the Colorado Bar Association, and David Olson, general counsel for the Colorado School Districts Self-Insurance Pool, also opposed the bill, echoing the same concerns about possible threats to attorney-client privilege.


Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”