House passes bill giving parents time off for school meetings

The Colorado House gave final 35-30 approval Thursday to a contentious bill intended to give parents the legal right to time off from work for parent-teacher conferences and a limited number of other school meetings.

There was no discussion before the vote. But the 50-minute debate over the bill on Wednesday was as much political theater as it was a policy discussion, with a strong undercurrent of Democratic-Republican differences about economic opportunity and business regulation, not about education.

“By passing this bill we will create a foundation for all parents to be able to be involved in their children’s education,” argued Rep. Janet Buckner, D-Aurora, the House prime sponsor of House Bill 16-1002. “It’s common knowledge that parent involvement creates academic success.”

Republicans who came to the microphone said they’re for parental involvement but countered that the bill isn’t necessary. “Companies can do this already,” said Rep. Tim Dore, R-Elizabeth.

Passing a law on the issue would “interrupt the positive interactions between employees and employer” necessary for a harmonious workplace, argued Rep. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument.

Democrats made much of the fact that the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry doesn’t oppose the bill. (It doesn’t support it either.) “If they had concerns they would come speak adamantly against it,” said Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora.

House Democrats this session are pushing an agenda of “working for Colorado families,” the phrase splashed across their website. They include HB 16-1002 on that list.

While a growing economy is good for business, “Isn’t it time that we also think about Colorado families?” said Majority Leader Crisanta Duran, D-Denver. “A level playing field for middle-class families. That’s what this bill is about.”

The bill’s provisions provide relatively limited benefits for workers and give employers flexibility in giving or denying leave:

  • Only companies with 50 or more employees are required to grant time off.
  • Parents can take unpaid leave for parent-teacher conferences or meetings related to special education services, interventions, dropout prevention, attendance, truancy, or discipline. Other school activities aren’t covered.
  • Time off of 18 hours a year can be taken in chunks of three hours or less, not to exceed six hours a month. Employees would have to give a week’s notice.
  • Employers can deny leave requests for reasons like possible disruption of service or production.
  • School districts would be required to notify parents of their rights to time off.

A law virtually identical to HB 16-1002 was passed it 2009. But it included a five-year sunset clause, and it expired in September after the lawmakers failed to approve an extension last session.

Buckner invoked her late husband, sponsor of last year’s unsuccessful bill, in making her final pitch.

“My husband, the late John Buckner, was adamant about this bill,” she said. “… If there was anything in this bill that was detrimental he would not have approved it.”

John Buckner was widely respected on both sides of the aisle. His wife was appointed to succeed him after his death last May.

Given Republican control of the Senate, the bill isn’t expected to survive in that chamber. Last year’s bill narrowly passed the House and died in a Senate committee.

The only Republican to vote for the bill Thursday was Rep. Kit Roupe of Colorado Springs.