legislature

School board transparency bill moves forward

Passes House following lengthy debate

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A contentious House floor debate preceded the Feb. 13 passage of a bill that aims to shine a light on school board members' private discussions.

House Bill 1110 would expand current law that already requires the recording of all conversations that take place during school board executive sessions to include those involving attorney-client discussions.

Most Democrats supported the measure, saying that it holds elected officials accountable for what happens behind closed doors and that it bolsters the public's right to know what their school members are up to.

But all House Republicans joined three Democrats in voting against the bill. Several spoke out against the bill, calling it an affront to attorney-client privilege.

They also argued that the bill unfairly targets a handful of school boards that have been the subject of controversy over executive session matters, including boards in Douglas and Jefferson Counties.

"This is targeted and punitive to a few school districts to this state," Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch said. "We should not use the power of legislation to punish."

McNulty's comments came during a Feb. 12 House floor debate. The House passed the bill the next day on a 34-31 vote.

Under the bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Cherylin Peniston, D-Westminster, recordings of executive sessions would be stored and would be made available only through a successful petition through the courts.

If a filer believes that what was being handled during executive session doesn't warrant a behind-closed-doors discussion, a judge would listen to the recording to determine whether that information should be made public. If the judge believes that to be the case, the recordings would be released.

The bill also requires that school boards post the topics that are discussed in executive session, the same way they do through the posting of board meeting minutes. The topics would require enough of a summary of what was being discussed during the session, but wouldn't have to go into detail of the privileged conversations.

"The value of this bill is for the community who wants to know whether our elected officials are using their privileges correctly," Peniston said prior to the House vote. "It's a transparency issue."

Peniston insisted that the bill is not directed at any particular school district. But Republicans believe otherwise.

The Douglas County School Board has been the subject of criticism over its use of executive sessions. The conservative board has pushed for controversial reforms, including those that would limit the influence of teachers' unions.

New conservative members of the Jefferson County Public Schools Board of Education have also received criticism. In December the three new members approved a lawyer's contract without disclosing the terms during a public meeting.

Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, blasted the "terrible" bill, not only for what he feels is the unfair targeting of certain school boards, but for also being a veiled reaction to last year's school board elections across the state. Last November, reform candidates were swept into school board posts at Douglas and Jefferson Counties.

"I can't believe how obvious of a target this bill is of certain school boards in this state, because of the fact that elections were won by reform groups in this state," Priola said.

Republicans also took aim at what they believe is a violation of attorney-client privilege. Rep. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican who is also a lawyer, took to the well often to offer sharp criticism of the legislation.

Gardner said the bill would make it difficult for attorneys to have candid conversations with their clients and it would soak up judge's use of time.

"This bill, more than any that has come before us, in my view is such an assault on public policy that it deserves the debate," he said.

But Rep. Mike McLachlan, D-Durango, said the "hysteria" over that aspect of the bill is unwarranted and that the bill would lift the "mask of secrecy" from the goings-on at school board meetings.

"The public does not like secrecy," he said. "The public does not support secrecy in any governmental body."

That sentiment was expressed by a few witnesses who testified during a Feb. 3 House committee hearing.

Shawna Fritzler, the mother of a Jefferson County student, said the school board there ought to be more transparent and that its members are losing the public's confidence.

"On one level it's ironic for every board that keeps the public in the dark and out of board meetings, they're also asking for more involvement," she said. "It's scaring teachers, parents and community members. And that impacts the children in our schools."

The bill had its share of critics at the same committee hearing. Debbie Lammers, a St. Vrain Valley School District board member, said it's unfair that the bill only targets school boards, but not other governing bodies.

Last year's version of the bill included city councils and other bodies into the mix, but it did not have the support inside the Capitol.

The three House Democrats who voted against this year's effort were Reps. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village; Rep. Diane Mitsh Bush, D-Steamboat Springs; and Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver.

Pabon, a lawyer, seemingly argued in favor of the bill the day before the final vote, but he said that his no vote was ultimately based on his belief that the bill would create a slippery slope that would do harm to attorney-client privacy.

The bill now heads to the Senate.

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