Jefferson County school board member Julie Williams believes some things should be kept private.
That includes some written correspondence with constituents who pull double duty as advisers and friends.
So, on Sept. 17 she emailed Loren Sheets, a Jefferson County mother and Tea Party activist who was interested in serving on a controversial curriculum review committee, “My email is under CORA so it is best to call or text me or talk through Donna Jack.”
Williams gave the same advice to at least two other individuals, according to email records. Jack is a confidant of Williams’ and has regularly addressed the school board during public comment.
“A lot of my friends and people I have been talking to, they’d like their emails kept confidential,” Williams told Chalkbeat after a recent school board meeting. “They have expressed that our communications are to be strictly confidential. That’s why I wanted them to know, if you email me, even if it’s a simple question, it’s open to CORA. I think they have a right to know that.”
Chalkbeat learned of Williams’ suggestion after obtaining dozens of emails she sent during the month of September through an open records request.
The problem with Williams’ advice is that text messages pertaining to district business sent or received by elected officials are subject to the state’s open records laws too.
But Williams didn’t know that.
That’s because she’s received no training on what’s in Colorado’s open records laws and she hasn’t independently sought legal advice on how to keep some of her records private.
But she said, “it’s something I’d like to pursue.”
Williams, along with board members Ken Witt and John Newkirk were elected in November. They ran on a platform of, among other things, expanding school choice, merit-based pay for teachers, and transparency. But since being sworn in, the three who make up the board majority have been under scrutiny by a vocal group of parents and teachers.
“I want there to be transparency, but I also sometimes need help with things,” Williams said. “Even President Obama has people help him with speech writing and messaging and standing up in front of crowds. Some of my friends, they’re my friends and they provide me feedback. And I don’t think everything we talk about should be subject to CORA.”
On Friday, Chalkbeat reported that board chairman Witt claimed he had no records of any correspondence he might have sent or received from a private email account. That’s despite Chalkbeat knowing of at least five instances he used that account.
Government agencies, including school districts, are supposed to have a policy on how to maintain and destroy public records, including those records that are only kept digitally, like email, said Steve Zansberg, a lawyer and president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
Jeffco Public Schools has no such explicit policy. A lawyer for the school system said she believes the district is compliant with all records laws.
Williams said board members need more training on the state’s open records laws and other district policies.
“We’re not given much information,” she said. “We’re not given any training. We’re learning as we go.”