Adams 14 district leaders ordered police to kick out the head of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education from a school board meeting this week, as he stood at the podium midway through his comments criticizing district staff.
In removing Jorge Garcia, a frequent critical voice at district board meetings, officials cited a policy that bars “personal attacks” during public comment. The board’s attempts to regulate public participation in its meetings have prompted discussion among board members and others and raised questions about how the district engages with the community.
Garcia was the first speaker at the board’s public comment session Tuesday, as he has been for most meetings in the last year. He started by criticizing the district’s performance on state tests.
“Despite [Superintendent Javier] Abrego’s attempts to make it seem like this district is doing so much better this year than in years past, the truth is that the district is still not off the clock,” Garcia said, referring to the district being on a state watch list. “He promised that he would have the district out of turnaround in two years or he would resign. That was the first of many false promises to this community.”
“Turnaround” is a state label indicating the district needs to improve.
Connie Quintana, the board president, first interrupted Garcia’s comments to tell him he could not use people’s names — as frequently requested of speakers in the past year, despite the lack of a written policy stating that names can’t be used.
Garcia responded that he could use names, and continued reading his remarks prepared for the three-minute allotted time. A little later, Quintana interrupted again as he was criticizing a meeting Superintendent Abrego and his staff held with CU Boulder’s School of Education.
“This is not constructive,” Quintana said to Garcia ordering him to stop as the officer came to stand by Garcia. Garcia raised his voice, visibly upset. Superintendent Abrego said, “get him off,” and the officer then escorted out Garcia, who was still shouting.
A video below shows the exchange starting at about minute 23:10.
The district’s policy about public comments prohibits personal attacks but states that it welcomes constructive criticism if it is “motivated by a sincere desire to improve the quality of the educational program.”
“The school district also has confidence in its professional staff, and desires to support their actions in order that they be free from unnecessary, spiteful, or destructive criticism and complaint,” the policy states.
Adams 14 spokesman Alex Sanchez said the district permits speakers to express criticism.
Other speakers Tuesday, including the one directly after Garcia, also criticized the district, but were not called out of order.
Sanchez also said that Quintana didn’t really mean that Garcia shouldn’t use names, but that she was asking Garcia to stop making personal attacks.
“We don’t discriminate based on whether it’s negative or positive,” Sanchez said. “He violated policy. He was called out of order. The board president had the right to revoke that privilege.”
He later described a personal attack as comments naming people. “If he had said a person’s position or title, it would have been different.”
Quintana, the board president, did not respond to a request for comment about why she called Garcia out of order.
Garcia said he was not trying to attack anyone.
“I was giving them facts to ask the question, how will you be addressing the district’s image,” Garcia said. “You should know what your employee is doing and how he is representing the district. It is absolutely relevant.”
School board member Bill Hyde, who was not present at Tuesday’s meeting, has questioned the board policy before. He once blogged that Abrego emailed board members “advising them to bar non-residents from speaking during the public comments,” citing the policy as justification. Garcia is one of several advocates for biliteracy education who do not live in the district and regularly speak at board meetings.
Hyde has also pointed out in meetings that board policy does not restrict the board or speakers from using people’s names.
Mark Silverstein, the legal director for the ACLU, would not comment specifically but said in general, school districts should not have too much room to interpret what is allowed or not.
“Any rule or regulation that restricts or controls when or what can be said in a public forum needs to be clear …. so that officials interpreting the policy do not have free reign as they enter into their evaluations.”
At a meeting in April, when the board had a staff member from the Colorado Association of School Boards give them a presentation on how to govern as a school board, Hyde asked about the policy.
Randy Black, a director of member relations for the association, told the board that controlling comments during a public forum is a challenge.
He urged the board instead to consider that people making personal attacks might signal that the public does not feel engaged.
“How do people feel involved or valued or listened to or heard?” Black asked the board.
District spokesman Sanchez also acknowledged that Tuesday’s incident signals a lack of community engagement.
“We recognize you eliminate a lot of this by having authentic community engagement outside the board room,” Sanchez said.
Ariel Smith and Nicholas Martinez, the leaders of Transform Education Now, a nonprofit that focuses on parent advocacy, said the problem was on display just a day later at a meeting Wednesday when they heard from parents who said they felt “intimidated out of participation.”
The district only recently has had police present at board meetings.
“School districts must take safety and security seriously,” Sanchez said. “We provide security to protect both the public, our students and staff. This is normal and a best practice for school board meetings.”
Garcia called the tactic unnecessary and intimidating.
“It seems like they want to instill fear in the community and in a community with so many immigrants who have good reason to fear a police presence, it seems like they are the ones being targeted,” Garcia said.
Garcia had started addressing the board last year when the district stopped the rollout of a biliteracy program. He often criticizes the district and superintendent over policies affecting bilingual families and students.
The superintendent has responded to Garcia’s comments in the past, disputing much of his criticism.
Garcia was not cited. As he left the meeting he shouted that the board would be hearing from his attorney. Later he said he wants to give the board the opportunity to “right their wrong” but said that if they don’t, he may consider “other options.”