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Jeffco board member: we need more guidance on open records

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
School board member Julie Williams, left, answered questions Oct. 2 at a Jeffco school board meeting.

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.”

creating community

Seeking to broaden its support base, Jeffco looks at building bridges to community

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

When Elizabeth Panzer’s 10-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer four years ago, the school community in northwest Arvada organized a schedule to prepare and deliver meals to her family those first few months.

“The community of that school, they kept us afloat,” Panzer said. “That was powerful for me because I didn’t know that many people in the school because I hadn’t been very involved.”

It was that experience of the community coming together that brought Panzer to join the group tasked with delivering recommendations to Jeffco Public Schools for how the district can engage and build better relationships with the community.

Superintendent Jason Glass said he convened the group after hearing during his listening tours that too many people in the county have no connection to the schools. Forging stronger ties with more folks is especially critical this year as the Jeffco district contemplates placing a tax measure on the November ballot to produce new local revenue.

“We recognized we have this disconnect, and we have an understanding that if we can increase that connection, we can also increase support for public education,” Glass said.

Panzer said she wondered if the same community strength that helped her family could be fostered to create a “give-and-take” relationship that benefits other children who may be struggling.

“There are so many people who are struggling, and they’re quiet,” Panzer said. “They’re not the ones involved. They’re the ones on the edges. The more connected we are, the better able we are to scoop up the ones on the edges who need help.”

From any school district’s perspective, there are many reasons to foster community engagement. Schools could use partnerships with local businesses to create apprenticeship opportunities for students. Community members can make good volunteers, mentors, or donors. And students can learn something from giving back to their community, too.

Glass cited all of those reasons. He has asked the task force to give him recommendations on better engaging the community — particularly Jeffco residents who aren’t connected to schools — by September.

Next meeting:

  • 6 p.m. Monday July 30
    at the Ed Center, 1829 Denver W Dr, Golden
  • More information on providing input online, here

The tight deadline reveals another reason improving community engagement is important to the district now. If Jeffco’s school board next month decides to ask voters for increased local funding this November, the district must prepare to communicate their needs to voters.

Two years ago, the district asked voters for new dollars to improve salaries, add new counselors at elementary schools, and to improve buildings by adding space and by replacing older schools. But voters rejected both requests.

“The work of this community engagement task force is really important for that work coming up,” Glass said.

Many put the percentage of Jeffco residents who don’t have a connection to schools as high as 75 percent. Using rough estimates from the district including 86,000 students, 14,000 employees and about 130,000 parents, that would leave almost 60 percent of the estimated 575,000 residents of the county without a direct link to schools.

So far, the task force of about 35 people has met twice. Its volunteer members are asking for more input from the community and for more participants to help draft the recommendations. Anyone interested in joining still may. The next meeting is at 6 p.m. July 30.

Katie Winner, a district mom on the task force, said many participants have shared stories of how they were involved at their school or examples of problems they faced in trying to get access to a school in their neighborhood.

The task force will look at ways to address barriers people have faced in connecting with schools. It also will look at what kind of engagement makes a difference and is worth the district’s support. And they will consider if different strategies are needed for various segments of the community such as senior citizens, faith based organizations, or local businesses.

“We have to think about policy for an entire district,” Winner said. “So, it’s challenging.”

Panzer said she believes the group should look at having more open schools and creating trust.

“I believe the power will come from us reaching out to the community first,” Panzer said. “That starts to build trust.”

Glass said he didn’t create the group with any preconceived ideas about what kind of recommendations it should create, but instead said he wants it to lead to a better relationship with the community.

“I’m really relying on the members of this task force to draw on the wisdom of the community,” Glass said. “Schools and districts can operate with a sort of fortress mentality. We haven’t necessarily done the work to show the community we honor and value them. We realize there is work to do to show the community there’s outreach that its genuine and real.”

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.