Voters in Jefferson County and the Loveland-based Thompson School District sent their school boards a clear message Tuesday night: “Get along, willya?”
Tired of the divisive politics, voters cleaned out conservative majorities. But the election is likely to have much more impact than just boards that work more collaboratively.
At least one guy might be out of a job.
See, both board majorities hired the same attorney, Brad Miller of Colorado Springs, who once owned a charter-school business in Jefferson County. Those who won in Jeffco on Tuesday night indicated Miller is on his way out.
Miller’s controversial hiring was among the first actions taken by those conservative majorities that pointed to how things would be done for the next two years.
The Thompson School District was the first to act. In its December 11, 2013 meeting, in discussing Miller’s hiring, Board President Bob Kerrigan reportedly announced Miller was also Jeffco’s board attorney.
That wasn’t yet officially correct, but that Kerrigan knew Miller was going to be hired by Jeffco was indication of coordination between the conservative majorities on those two school boards.
As it turned out, only the three conservative members of the Jeffco board knew about Miller’s hiring prior to December 10th.
The Jeffco board, on a 3-2 vote, officially approved Miller’s contract on December 12th, which was the new board majority’s first regular meeting. There was no public notice that the board was going to take that action; it was listed on the agenda as “attorney for board of education” and took place more than 3 ½ hours into a nearly six-hour meeting. There also was no open bid process for the contract and contrary to state law, no public interview process, which is required for non-personnel hiring.
That action, which The Denver Post claimed “may have skirted” the state’s open meetings law, led to the first criticisms of the new board majority by Jeffco parents, teachers and community members.
The Thompson school board didn’t officially contract with Miller until the following February; as with Jeffco, his firm, Miller Sparks, was the only one considered.
Miller’s tenure with Jeffco is likely over, based on comments made by three of the five new school board members with The Colorado Independent Tuesday night. They also commented, in more conciliatory terms, on the future of Superintendent Dan McMinimee.
Brad Rupert, one of the recall winners on the Jeffco board, said he wasn’t sure the board needed its own attorney. As to McMinimee, who has 18 months left on his three-year contract, Rupert said “you let people demonstrate whether they’re on board and whether they’re performing.”
Rupert said McMinimee’s status is a personnel matter for the whole board to review.
The future doesn’t look good for Miller, according to new board member Ron Mitchell. “I’m not fond of that model, of having legal counsel for board members,” he said.
As to McMinimee, Mitchell said the board should look at whether the superintendent can help them implement their vision for Jeffco schools.
Amanda Stevens was more direct. “I suspect we will not continue with Brad Miller,” she told The Independent.
Stevens said she hopes McMinimee will be successful, and that the board gives him very specific goals, particularly on teacher retention. That was one factor the pro-recall side cited for recalling the board majority, that the district’s best teachers were leaving in droves.
McMinimee “will have to earn that spot long-term,” Stevens said.
She also noted it is also important that the board, district and community work toward reconciliation in the coming months.
In Thompson, the 4-3 conservative majority changed to a 5-2 pro-teacher majority after Tuesday’s election.
The two incumbents in Tuesday night’s election in Thompson have already made their views of Miller known, through their public votes. Both Pam Howard and Denise Montagu voted against Miller’s hiring in February, 2014. Montagu, in the Feb. 5, 2014 meeting, attempted twice to postpone the hiring until Miller could be publicly interviewed, a motion that failed on a 4-3 vote. The third “no” vote came from Lori Hvizda Ward, who was not up for re-election last night.
David Levy, one of the new board members in Thompson, told The Independent this morning in an email he felt it would be more appropriate for the board to discuss before commenting publicly on Miller’s future. Doing so in public “will also help restore proper Board procedures and process,” he wrote.
Jeff Swanty, the other new member of the Thompson board, told The Independent that “we owe it to the other board members to get their input,” as he had run on a platform of collaboration. But he also said he believes that a board attorney “is an unnecessary expense” and a duplication of effort since the district already has an attorney.
There’s also the matter of the lawsuit filed against the district by the Thompson Education Association. The Colorado Court of Appeals two weeks ago rejected an injunction sought by the union that would prevent the board from eliminating the union as the sole negotiator on behalf of Thompson teachers. However, that decision, handed down Oct. 22, was too late for the board to take action to decertify the union before the election. The board’s next meeting, on November 18, is the last for the conservative majority, and they could still take that action.
Swanty, who served on the school board from 2003 to 2006, believes that such action is at best a remote possibility. He said he hopes the union will drop the lawsuit and that the contract negotiated earlier this year can be brought back for another vote.
“I’m for doing anything I can to get rid of this mess,” he said.
“We’re going to be a model school district,” Swanty predicts: one where everyone works together for the good of the district’s students.
In September, Howard, Montagu and Ward voted against accepting $150,000 from the Daniels Fund that was solicited by Miller without prior board approval, and intended to cover the board’s legal fees related to the lawsuit.
The three also voted against fighting the lawsuit with the union, instead advocating that the board work out its differences with the union outside of court.