It took no time at all for the newly sworn-in District 51 School Board members to violate Colorado’s Open Meetings Law (pdf), violate their campaign promises of transparency, and indicate their willingness to spend excessive taxpayer funds for no clear reason, and they did it all in one breathtaking move they sprang on everyone a full four hours into their first board meeting December 14.
A front page article in the December 15, 2021 issue of the Daily Sentinel says the three — Andrea Haitz, Willie Jones and Angela Lema, who ran together as a far-right extremist bloc — made the decision about switching the District’s legal representation without telling the other Board members or the public. Their plan was to fire District 51’s in-house attorney, John Williams, months before his contract was up, and hire a Colorado Springs legal firm to work for the District at an unknown price. According to estimates by local attorneys and even former Board member Trish Mahre, who is herself an attorney, doing this could easily double or triple the amount of money the District spent on legal work last year.
At about 4:16 into the video, D-51 Superintendent Diana Sirko said the District spent $565,262 on legal representation using an outside law firm in 2018, spent $492,080 on legal help with an outside firm in 2019 and then, after hiring in-house attorney John Williams, by this point in 2021 the District had only spent $266,000 — about $300,000 less than they did retaining an outside law firm. Sirko also said responses to constituents were much faster with an in-house attorney.
You can watch the school board meeting at this link. Skip through the four hours of public comment at the beginning and fast-forward to 4:09 into the meeting to the part where the three new board members spring their decision about hiring a new law firm on the other school board members, who quickly introduce a motion to table it, so they can at least get a chance to discuss it. After that, existing school board members plead with the new extremists to use a defined process to make a change like this, as is customary in such decisions.
So what’s so bad about what Haitz, Lema and Jones did?
- Making a major decision without telling the public and other board members what they were doing violates Colorado’s Open Meetings Law (pdf), which regulates how public officials can conduct meetings. The law was enacted to keep elected officials from making major policy decisions in secret, and without any public comment, which is exactly what Haitz, Jones and Lema did. The law says all meetings of two or more members of an elected Board at which any public business is discussed must be open to the public, and any gathering of a quorum or three or more members of a local body constitutes a meeting. Even email messages in which board members discuss any policy action like this constitutes a meeting, and their emails are subject to the Open Meetings law. Meetings about such topics can only be held after the Board gives
the public “full and timely notice” that they are going to discuss the issue by posting an agenda in a designated public place at least 24 hours before the meeting. The new Board members did not do any of this.
- Haitz, Lema and Jones sprang this decision on the other two Board members and the public shortly before the meeting;
- Haitz, Lema and Jones had a contract with the new firm already drawn up and signed, and planned to hire the firm at an unknown cost to the public.
The new school board members seem to need a briefing on Parliamentary procedure, as they seemed confused at times what motion was on the table. They also need a briefing on state open meeting laws, and what information the public is entitled to have. At around 4:35 in the meeting, Willie Jones actually accuses un-named people of “leaking” information about their actions. He was unaware that all policy discussions among school board members are public as a matter of law, and that secret meetings are not allowed, ever.
Following a playbook
The interesting thing is, the new board members’ actions followed almost exactly the exact same playbook another conservative school board majority used in Jefferson County in 2013. Roll the 3 minute video below to see how it played out exactly the way it did at District 51 on December 14:
At a JeffCo School board meeting on December 12, 2013, the same situation occurred, almost to the letter: A newly-elected, 3-member conservative school board majority made a decision to hire an attorney just to represent the Board. They decided to hire this attorney in secret, discussing it away from the public, and they sprang their decision on everyone a day before the meeting. Like the new D-51 Board members, they brought the decision up very late into a long meeting. They hired the attorney at an unknown cost to taxpayers after performing interviews in secret, without any public comment, without putting out any request for proposals and without even including the other board members in the decision.
Their move even involved the same attorney — Brad Miller of Colorado Springs — who they happened to meet at a Colorado Association of School Boards (CASB) conference, just like the new D-51 Board members did. The CASB conference the new D-51 Board members attended was at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs on December 2-4.
Why are right wing extremists so eager to hire this particular attorney, without any vetting, without getting cost estimates or assurances, without putting out request for proposals (RFPs), or doing any other due diligence of how well suited he is to the needs of their districts?
Because it is a purely ideological hire. Mr. Miller specializes in representing religious ministries and charter schools. While Brad Miller denies being a charter school crusader, he uses his Twitter feed to advocate for for charter schools and to oppose institutional funding of public schools. His own kids attended charter schools private schools and were homeschooled. They did not attend public school.