Colorado House clash tied to JeffCo school board ‘donnybrook’

DENVER — It wasn’t a gun bill, but it sparked the kind of heated exchange that characterizes gun-bill debates in Colorado.

The debate centered on a bill that looked to rewrite the rules governing school board executive meetings and it is a sign of heated debates to come over education policy, increasingly becoming one of the hottest political topics in the state.

House Bill 1110 would require school boards to audio record “executive” meetings conducted with attorneys. Boards wouldn’t be required to share those recordings with the public unless a judge required it — but they would have to share a brief description of what was discussed and for how long.

The House debate came just days after an uproarious school board meeting in Jefferson County, where the new conservative majority effectively ousted longtime superintendent Cindy Stevenson. The majority members have hired a private attorney and have conducted a series of closed door meetings with him. He stalked around board members at the meeting where Stevenson resigned.

In debating the bill Wednesday, one and then another Republican lawmaker took to the well in the chamber, decrying the bill as an assault on attorney-client privilege and local control. Some called it a punitive measure targeted at conservative or free-market school boards in Douglas and Jefferson Counties.

“We see where the battlegrounds are now for reform in education in the state of Colorado,” said Republican Kevin Priola of Adams County. “There are entrenched interests that do not want reform… They are losing at the ballot box and they are using this and other methods to try to stop it.”

Representative Bob Gardner, a Republican from Colorado Springs, who likened attorney-client privilege to the sanctity of the Catholic confession booth, warned that other boards — like union boards — that enjoy attorney-client privilege would be next to lose it.

The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Rep Cherylin Peniston of Westminster, said that the measure simply creates more transparency about how Colorado schools operate, and that established legal practices will continue to protect attorney-client privilege.

“The bill will give our communities more information on which to base inquiries. Less fishing expeditions will be needed,” she said.

Her bill won the support of the majority Democrats, passing and moves to the Senate.

You can see a 3-minute mash-up of the heated hour of floor debate in the clip above. The unabridged version is available at the Colorado Channel.

[Photo by Gian Carlo Sinchon]