School board politics dominates discussion

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Board member Dahlkemper speaks to Mountain Area Democrats

By Daniel Laverty

Jeffco school board member Lesley Dahlkemper said in an Evergreen appearance Saturday morning that, amid the board’s new political orientation, the focus should remain on educating kids.

But a substantial part of the morning was spent on audience questions about board politics.

Dahlkemper spoke at the Mountain Area Democrats’ monthly breakfast and was greeted with questions and concerns about the future of education in Jefferson County.

“Serving on the board has been one of the most rewarding and challenging things I’ve ever done,” Dahlkemper told the crowd of more than 40 at the United Methodist Church of Evergreen.

Board member Jill Fellman was also scheduled to speak but was ill, Dahlkemper said.

Last November, the political makeup of the five-member board changed when three conservatives — Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk — were elected.

After a brief presentation on the role of a school board and an update on academic achievements of Jeffco schools, Dahlkemper answered questions from the audience.

Multiple audience members voiced dismay over the board’s recent hiring of a board attorney. At its Dec. 12 meeting, the board voted 3-2 to hire Colorado Springs-based attorney Brad Miller of Miller Sparks LLC.

Saying the process was rushed, Dahlkemper and Fellman voted against the hire. Dahlkemper has made two motions at subsequent meetings asking that the board have a public discussion about the new attorney; both failed.

“It was two days before our December meeting, and I received an e-mail from Ken Witt telling us about (plans to hire a board attorney),” Dahlkemper said Saturday. “The board didn’t even have a discussion about even the rationale of hiring a board attorney. There wasn’t even a contract in front of us.”

In the wake of the hiring, the board has been criticized by the Jeffco Parent Teacher Association and community members, saying the decision was hasty, an imprudent use of tax dollars, and not transparent.

“Did (Witt, Williams and Newkirk) violate Sunshine Laws? I can’t answer that,” Dahlkemper said. “Did they break the spirit of Sunshine Laws? Maybe, but I just don’t know.”

One attendee brought up concerns he had with the new board majority.

“I was at the (Jan. 16) board meeting, and it sounds like the new board members are only concerned with charter schools and possibly vouchers,” he said. “It seems like the vote is always going to be 3-2 in their favor, and I’m concerned about that.”

“I would encourage you to send an e-mail, become engaged and attend a board meeting,” Dahlkemper told the audience. “We need to hear from you and what your priorities are.”

On Jan. 16, the board narrowly approved a STEM program expansion for sixth-graders at Deer Creek Middle School in Littleton. To the surprise of many, Williams joined Dahlkemper and Fellman in voting yes on the expansion.

Witt and Newkirk felt the decision to expand the science and math curriculum at Deer Creek was rushed and lacked public discussion and parent involvement. Parents were notified of the STEM expansion in a December letter from the district.

After the board announced its concerns and possible plans to delay the STEM expansion at a Jan. 9 study session, a group of parents and students showed up to speak on Jan. 16 in favor of the sixth-grade STEM expansion at Deer Creek.

“Julie Williams deserves credit for moving that forward,” Dahlkemper said. “We’re not going to agree on everything, but (it’s an example of) public comment making a difference.”

Attendees said they were concerned about the future of Jeffco schools and the board with Fellman and Dahlkemper being in the minority.

“The best (Fellman) and I can do is articulate our concerns and the concerns we hear from the community (to the rest of the board),” Dahlkemper said.

She again urged each audience member to become involved and to voice concerns at school board meetings or by contacting board members.

“This new board is still responsible for every child in Jefferson County,” she said. “We need to find a way to be collaborative and work together. Sure, we have different opinions, but the focus needs to be on children.”

The next Jeffco Board of Education meeting is at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 30 at 1829 Denver West Drive, Building 27, in Golden.

Once the meeting starts at 5:30 p.m., the board will go into executive session for an hour to discuss negotiations with the district’s employee unions. Following the executive session, the meeting will be open to the public.

Contact Daniel Laverty at 303-350-1042 or Daniel@evergreenco.com.  Follow Daniel on Twitter @LavertyReports.