Voices: A call for transparency in Dougco

Susan Meek, a Douglas County parent and former district spokeswoman, says Dougco board members are spending too much time behind closed doors and failing to listen to their community.

A key component for building trust and cohesiveness in a school district revolves around transparency and accountability. The Douglas County school board has violated that trust with its public.

As demonstrated on this chart, a growing dependence on private executive sessions during what should be public meetings has been a troubling trend. Previous Douglas County school boards spent on average 8 percent of their meeting time in executive sessions. The current school board now spends more than half its time behind closed doors.

When questioned, the response is that the current legal issues around vouchers and the teachers union requires this extra time. However, the current school board spends 30 minutes less per public meeting on average than the previous school board.

What happens to the regular school business that loses out because the Douglas County school board is prioritizing the voucher lawsuit and busting the union over discussing pertinent educational issues? Such issues include the reasons behind the district’s state accreditation dropping from Accredited with Distinction to Accredited, bullying prevention, special education services, 21st century skills to prepare all students for life, and the list goes on.

Any business owner understands that resources are limited and their allocation is critical to either having a successful or failed business. If the school board believes deeply in the need to allocate their resources toward issues that result in two-hour executive sessions each and every school board meeting, those public meetings should then last an extra two hours beyond the time needed to still achieve the important and significant work required of running a successful school district.

Recently, the legality and validity of what transpires during those closed-door meetings has been called into question. On July 26, the board held a special meeting to discuss education reform efforts under consideration for the November election. The board erroneously cited its reason for executive session as “legal advice regarding statutory notice requirements for coordinating elections.”

This policy discussion would not provide a valid reason for an executive session as delineated by Colorado law. Nearly the entire meeting was held behind closed doors and no public discussions between board members took place during the 72 minutes of that meeting (about four minutes of the meeting was open to the public and consisted of votes without any discussion).

After repeated requests have gone unanswered, a public petition is now underway requesting the board to change its practices to improve transparency and to schedule a special meeting to discuss the education reform efforts they are currently deliberating. Yet the secrecy continues, free speech is being limited and First Amendment rights are being stripped away.

The following actions of the school board demonstrate unacceptable behavior by these government officials:

  • Public comment at board meetings has been changed to make the public’s participation much more difficult for the average citizen. It is scheduled at the beginning of the meeting when most working adults are commuting home, is limited to 30 minutes regardless of the number of citizens who sign up to talk and is scheduled to proceed a two-hour executive session where the individuals would need to wait around to attend the public portion of the meeting to begin.
  • The community engagement meeting that was previously scheduled for Aug. 21 was canceled with no public discussion as to why.
  • Emails and Colorado Open Records Act requests go unanswered or delayed beyond the legal requirements.
  • A parent was removed from the Aug. 7 meeting due to disorderly conduct simply because he chose to videotape outside of the designated area (a new verbal policy of the district enacted that night). You can see video of the removal here.
  • Employees are working under a draft handbook.
  • Employees are asked to accept positions without knowing what their pay will be.
  • Employees are prohibited from sending mass emails regardless of the topic without prior approval.

It is a common practice for school boards to engage with their public in a positive, respectful and healthy dialogue. By honoring the diverse expertise and abilities of the community members, the board of education can craft plans that are far superior to ones developed without public input. By working to limit the voices of the students, parents, employees and citizens, the board is acting in a manner that is detrimental to all.

As a Douglas County taxpayer with children in district schools, I encourage the board of education to look for ways to connect with the community and to be transparent with its actions. Instead of canceling public engagement meetings, it should schedule extra meetings to speak to the public about its ideas and plans for moving the district forward. The public is eager to listen and ready to engage.

The requests made to the board, the public petition and a video of the July 26 special meeting are posted at www.StrongSchoolsCoalition.com. The public should not be taken out of public school board meetings. We have a right to know what our democratically-elected government officials are planning for our children.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.