New school board majority votes to hire law firm

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Decision, criticized for haste, lack of transparency, draws boos from audience

By Deb Hurley Brobst

In a decision that brought boos from the audience, the Jeffco school board’s new majority voted Thursday night to hire an attorney to represent the board — not the school district — with little time for discussion and many unanswered questions.

Board members Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman said after the meeting that they dissented not because they oppose the board having its own attorney, but because they objected to the way the motion was introduced and voted on.

They objected to a lack of discussion about the attorney’s scope of work or the fee the district would pay, and said board members had only two days to call two candidates before a decision was made at the meeting. Plus, there was no public input on the issue and no discussion about financing the attorney’s fees.

Community members in attendance agreed. The board was loudly booed twice — once when the motion was made to hire the attorney and again when the vote was taken. About 100 community members watched the meeting, which ended at 11:15 p.m., in the Lakewood High School auditorium.

The three board members voting “yes” — board president Ken Witt, John Newkirk and Julie Williams — were elected in November, dramatically changing the board’s political orientation to be more conservative. It was the first full meeting for the new board members.

After the meeting, Michele Patterson, Jeffco PTA president, said the new board members had reneged on their campaign promise that the board would be transparent.

“Mr. Witt said on Nov. 21 (at the school board meeting) that they were going to be transparent,” Patterson said. “When the whole audience boos you, that’s not transparent.”

The board hired Brad Miller of Miller Sparks LLC, a Colorado Springs law firm, to be its attorney. Miller represents the Falcon School District east of Colorado Springs and has done consulting work for several Colorado charter schools.

The engagement letter written by Miller was signed by Witt the day after the meeting and made available to board members during a board retreat on Saturday. According to the letter, Miller Sparks will receive a monthly $7,500 retainer for working up to 30 hours per month to assist the board with such things as agendas, board packets, staffing issues and communication.

Typically, consultants hired by the district sign agreements drawn up by the school district.

After the meeting Miller said of the board’s handling of the issue: “I think they handled it well. They exactly met their obligation. They brought it up at a public meeting, discussed its merits and made a decision in an open vote.”

While the contract can be terminated at any time, if Miller Sparks is retained for a year, the district will pay the firm $90,000.

The school district had cut $83 million from its budget between 2010 and 2013, and cuts were averted this year thanks to a property-tax increase approved by voters in 2012. Dahlkemper and Fellman were concerned about the fiscal responsibility of hiring an attorney when the district’s finances have been so tight.

According to the district, this is the first time the school board on its own has directly hired someone for any position. Normally, the board approves district hires. According to district spokeswoman Melissa Reeves, district policy states that the district does the hiring, not the school board.

Miller also might become the board attorney for the Thompson School District near Loveland. Its school board on Dec. 11 was given a proposal to hire Miller as board attorney and is expected to decide this week.

During the Thompson meeting Dec. 11, a day before the Jeffco meeting, the board president said that Miller Sparks currently represented Jeffco Schools,according to the Loveland Reporter-Herald.

Discussion about the need for a board attorney

Witt, who brought up the board-attorney idea, told members it was important for the board to have its own attorney, especially because the district’s in-house legal counsel, Allen Taggart, is retiring on Dec. 19.

“I don’t want to work without (attorney) representation in these early months of the board’s work,” Witt said, adding that he wanted a board attorney available for Saturday’s all-day retreat.

Superintendent Cindy Stevenson reminded the board that a transition plan was in place for new legal counsel to take over as Taggart retired. It was unclear whether the district will have two lawyers: the district’s legal counsel and Miller.

Dahlkemper and Fellman were concerned about the haste with which the decision was made without time for the board to discuss the matter and without public input.

Dahlkemper said Witt sent the board an e-mail two days before the meeting saying that Miller and another attorney were candidates for the position and asking board members to contact the two candidates to interview them.

“We need to take time to do it well,” Dahlkemper said. “We need to make sure there is public discussion.”

Williams said she spoke with both candidates, while Newkirk said he had spoken with Miller at a Colorado Association of School Boards convention Dec. 5-8 in Colorado Springs, and that the other candidate was traveling out of the country.

“We need to have a full public process about hiring legal counsel. We want to make sure that we have the transparency of moving forward with our public,” Fellman said.

“This board has not had a conversation of what we’re looking for,” Dahlkemper said. “We haven’t even talked about the price.”
When the crowd booed, Witt tried to restore order: “Let’s stop the noise in the crowd, please,” he said.

After the meeting, Dahlkemper said she objected to the “hasty, uninformed process that included no public input. Our board has had a longstanding practice that we bring issues to the board for conversation and consideration, but we typically don’t vote on that issue that night unless there are extenuating circumstances. There are a couple of good reasons for that. We hear different points of view, research, ask experts, and, most importantly, it allows time for the public to weigh in on those issues.”