Back in 2009, when the Douglas County GOP launched their campaign to take over the school board, they ran on transparency. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines transparency as, “characterized by visibility or accessibility of information especially concerning business practices”, so it boggles the mind that the President of the Douglas County Board of Education said, “I’m of the view we’re the most transparent school district in the state of Colorado” (Our Colorado News, March 15, 2013). He may want to look back at his campaign promise to “implement budgetary and operational transparency” because four years later, this board is not the most transparent in the state and a far cry from what they were in 2009.
The Strong Schools Coalition has spent hours tracking the amount of time the current board spends in executive session. In 2012, executive sessions grew to 49%—up from 8% in 2009. This means that almost half the time the school board meets, those meetings are not open to the public. In comparison to other like-sized districts, DCSD spends twice as much time in executive session as Littleton, three times as much as Cherry Creek, and almost ten times as much as the Jefferson County School District. What do they talk about? No one knows. Since executive sessions are private and confidential by law (as well as self-policed), it is very hard for stakeholders to find out what goes on behind closed doors.
Another concern is the amount of time these folks spend together discussing school board issues outside of regular meetings. This isn’t really a problem as long as they follow Sunshine Laws which clearly state, “Any meetings at which the adoption of any proposed policy, position, resolution, rule, regulation, or formal action occurs or at which a majority or quorum of the body is in attendance, or is expected to be in attendance, shall be held only after full and timely notice to the public”. This means that any time three or more school board directors are together, they are required to inform the public prior to their meeting. This also includes the “Meet the school board” session hosted by the GOP in January, as well as their victory party after the voucher ruling at a restaurant in Highlands Ranch last February.
Most of us would let the violation of the victory party slide if we could only get our CORA requests fulfilled. Recently, it has come to the attention of school board watchers that the Douglas County Educational Foundation has entered into some sort of an arrangement with The Starboard Group. The Starboard Group bills itself as “a premier political and non-profit consulting firm” which has many political connections with members of state republican elite and DCSD staff. Cinamon Watson, who is the district Community Engagement officer and the Interim Director of the Douglas County Education Foundation (and used to work for ALEC), has ties to both Katie Behnke and Kristin Strohm through her tenure as deputy campaign manager on Jane Norton’s failed 2010 senate bid. There is no problem giving friends work as long as it is all on the “up and up”, but repeated requests for the contract and correspondence between DCEF and Starboard have been refused and ignored, making it appear that something untoward is going on. Not much for operational transparency are they?
This board also promised budgetary transparency. Their idea of budgetary transparency was putting the district checkbook online. What would be more helpful to taxpayers is an explanation for the yearly growth in the fund balance? Not having a good grasp on how much money is available from year to year results in undue cuts. The fund balance has grown over $60 million since 2009 when graduation requirements were cut because of budgetary restraints. Instead of restoring those requirements, we have been treated to new fees for buses and technology, increases in existing fees, a growth in class sizes, and cuts to high school instructional time. Many parents argue that the growth in the fund balance could have been used to stop some of the cuts and offset some of the fees, but the district refused to acknowledge the problem, let alone discuss it with stakeholders.
President Barack Obama once said, “A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency”. Unfortunately, our republican school board has broken their campaign promise of transparency, and without transparency, there is no way our elected public school board can begin to fulfill their other campaign promise to “restore accountability to parents and taxpayers” and to truly say, “we are accountable to you!”