The shouts and emotion traded among school board and audience members during the July 17 meeting dismayed but didn’t surprise Gary Colley. A regular board meeting attendant, he’s seen similar exchanges many times. He’d like to see it end.
Colley and several other county residents penned a public comment policy they’ve submitted to the board for consideration. Colley gave the proposal to Douglas County School Board Member Kevin Larsen in March, but the board has yet to consider it.
Colley and other long-time board meeting attendees say the meetings got more heated after the district introduced its voucher program, now suspended and waiting for a ruling by the Colorado Court of Appeals. The program used state funds to help send students to private schools.
“We’re a sophisticated community,” said Colley, a retired Weld County teacher and county resident who’s attended meetings since 2010. “We’ve got a much more involved and engaged community than has been in this district for a long time. These are people that aren’t going to let other people run away with taxpayers’ money without having a chance to express their views.
“I’ve been pushing for the school board to effectively engage the community, not a core group that supports their ideal.”
The proposed public comment policy calls for the board to adopt a code of conduct “to promote a spirit of cooperation, facilitate dissemination of information,” and “ascertain the community’s opinions and desires with respect to the operation of the school system.”
It charges the board president with maintaining order during meetings, asking him to “respectfully discourage” disruptive behavior. It also directs board members to “avoid the appearance of bias,” and either answer questions immediately or follow up as soon as possible.
Colley said the policy applies to the entire meeting, but it’s most needed during the public comment section. That’s when audience members, generally composed of teachers and parents, offer both criticism and praise of the board, school policies, programs and a wide-ranging, unpredictable swath of other issues.
Many address the 7-member board with trembling voices, teary eyes and clenched jaws, some respectful and some indifferent to the board’s two-minute public comment limit and the video timer that ticks away those seconds. Board members respond to them sometimes with silence, at other times with gratitude or questions and occasionally, in anger.
During the July 17 meeting, questions from the representative of one of the groups involved in the voucher lawsuit triggered angry responses from board members. Other audience members chimed in, and one school board member suggested calling the sheriff’s office.
School board member Meghann Silverthorn, who tried to restore calm at the meeting’s end, hasn’t seen Colley’s proposal, but said, “I believe we need to put a better set of rules in place.”
The board’s policies state that unless otherwise directed by state law or board policy, its meetings are governed by Robert’s Rules of Order. Those rules state speakers must first be recognized by the meeting’s chairperson. The rules prohibit references to personalities or individuals and emphasize courtesy.
“There are a lot of folks who don’t understand the protocol for meetings,” Silverthorn said. “We need to make the public aware of those guidelines so everybody knows what’s expected.”
But she added, board members “speaking back and forth with the audience is not necessarily correct.”
Larsen said other, more pressing issues have consumed the board’s time since Colley proposed the new language. He admits exchanges have sometimes been “downright rude, on both sides.”
“I would like to see us get the discourse to a better level,” he said.
Larsen is among the quieter board members, often falling silent when emotions run high.
“Sitting up there and taking the heat, I think that’s part of life,” he said. “A lot of it is keeping your eye on the ball.”
Karin Piper, founder of Parent Led Reform, has attended meetings since 2008. Early in 2011, she noticed “a lot more passion on both sides.”
She isn’t sure restrictions are needed.
“Where do you stop saying, ‘this is permitted, this is not’?” she said. “I would worry about the potential violation of the First Amendment and free speech.
“In the end, we all want what’s best for our district, our teachers and our kids. We just disagree on how to deliver the education. If we set that aside, this really does not have to drive such a big wedge between us.”
Several among the board maintain they have a mandate from voters who elected them to enact the voucher program, expand school choice options and carry out other directives on which they campaigned.
“We got elected to be the leadership for the district,” Larsen said. “Obviously, if we’re not attuned to the community or persuasive, there’s a time down the road where people can make their opinions really matter.”