Statehouse

School board transparency bill dies

Sponsor cites lack of support in Senate as reason for killing effort

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Legislation aimed at creating greater transparency for what happens behind closed doors at school board meetings will not happen this year.

A bill sponsor on March 12 asked a Senate committee to indefinitely postpone the legislation, meaning the bill is dead this session. The legislation would have required that all conversations that take place during school board executive sessions be recorded, including those involving attorney-client discussions.

Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, said she had enough votes for House Bill 1110 to clear the Senate Judiciary Committee. However, getting it past the full Senate was going to be an entirely different story.

Hodge — who sponsored the bill with Rep. Cherylin Peniston, D-Westminster — said the bill was one vote short of the support needed to pass the Senate.

That vote belonged to Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver. Steadman said he had concerns that the bill only targeted school boards and no other governing bodies, such as city councils. But Steadman's "overriding" concerns had to do with attorney-client matters.

Current law already requires that school board executive sessions be recorded. The bill would have expanded that requirement to include attorney-client conversations. All Republicans and a few Democrats voted against the bill in the House, in part over concerns that lawyers wouldn't be able to have effective conversations with their clients, if there was a possibility that those discussions could be made public.

"I think there're some concerns for me about the precedent it would have set," said Steadman, who is an attorney.

Under the bill, recordings of executive sessions would have been stored and would be made available through a court petition process. A judge would have listened to a recording upon a filer's request and determine whether that information should be made public.

The bill was a response to recent controversies over transparency issues involving school boards in Douglas and Jefferson Counties.

The Douglas County School Board has been the subject of criticism over its use of executive sessions. The conservative board has pushed for controversial reforms, including those that would limit the influence of teachers' unions.

New conservative members of the Jefferson County Public Schools Board of Education have also received criticism over transparency issues. In December, the three new members approved a lawyer's contract without disclosing the terms during a public meeting.

Potential misuse on the part of school board members is a concern that is shared by Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, the vice chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. But Newell said that although she would have voted the bill out of committee, she was torn over how she would ultimately vote once it got to the Senate floor.

"I am a big transparency fan and I absolutely believe that there are potential misuses going on," she said. "But it really is a tough bill."

Hodge said she is disappointed over the outcome of the bill, but said she expects this effort to be taken up again next year.

"I think it's an important issue," Hodge said. "I think transparency should always be paramount."