Home-school board violating state law, angry parents claim
Alleged conflicts of interest and violations of Colorado Open Meetings Law spurred a group of parents with children in School District 51’s home-school program, Mesa Valley Vision Home and Community Program, to ask two members of the decision-making board for the school to resign.
Adam and Rachel Cochran, who have four children enrolled in Vision, sent a letter to Board President Kim Howard and board member Ron Roybal in late March asking them to resign by the end of that month. Roybal also serves as the school district’s director of academic options. The two have declined to step down.
The Cochrans and other members of the school’s parent advisory committee started looking into Vision’s Board of Stewards earlier this year after the board knocked down a fundraising idea the committee proposed. Roybal told The Daily Sentinel the reason for the board’s decision is “confidential.”
Feeling they did not get a specific answer why the idea to form a new nonprofit to gather donations and grants was dismissed, some parents in the five-member group decided to attend board meetings Feb. 16 and March 20 and research board meeting minutes from the last four years. Vision parent Yrais “Nani” Struble said she was stunned to find in the minutes the board had changed its bylaws in January and February 2011. The changes include extending term limits to a minimum of three years instead of a maximum of three years, allowing members to serve indefinitely, allowing members to pick new board members instead of convening a more-complex nomination process, and growing the maximum number of people who could serve on the board from nine to 11.
Meeting minutes say these ideas came up at a previous “work session,” but discussion of the changes is not mentioned in any meeting minutes. Roybal, Howard and two fellow board members said they do not remember exactly when they discussed changing the bylaws or if it was in a public or private meeting.
Struble said she and other parents were not aware of the bylaw changes before this year.
“There’s actions that are taken but there’s nothing in the minutes about it. It’s like, when was this decided and how did you guys come about it?” Struble said.
Struble said she doesn’t want to be on the board, but wonders how anyone who doesn’t share views with the current board will ever get to serve.
“If I was to want to be on the board as a parent, how would I do that? I can’t because it’s a self-perpetuating board,” she said.
When asked about the impetus for the changes, Howard and fellow board members Jennifer Prieto and Alan Espinoza said it was hard to attract new members through the lengthier nomination process mentioned in the original bylaws. With Howard and Roybal approaching the end of their three-year terms this year and only six members currently on the board, Espinoza said the changes will help keep the board from running out of members.
“People we were nominating either didn’t want to stay or it didn’t work out,” he said. The changes were meant to “maintain control of the board not from a power perspective but from a protecting the board standpoint.”
Roybal said the current board has diverse opinions and the new process will preserve that diversity. Vision School Executive Director Susan Scofield, one of the founders of the program, said the bylaw changes do not reflect the wishes of the six families who formed the school in 2008.
“The danger is you’ll end up with board members that won’t challenge each other and that’s bad for the organization,” she said.
Fellow founder and former board president Craig Richmond said the founders never intended to allow board members to serve indefinitely. He said he doesn’t know much about the bylaw changes or the current board because he moved to Wisconsin nearly three years ago, but he has “an inkling of concern there’s some faction trying to change what the intent of the school was.”
private sessions a concern
Richmond said he also questions the board’s motivation to have regular executive sessions, which are closed-door meetings. Meeting minutes show the board has had executive sessions before nearly each meeting since February 2010.
Executive sessions are allowed for public local school boards under Colorado Open Meetings Law, but only for the purposes of discussing personnel, students, confidential topics, property, legal matters, security planning or matters subject to negotiation. Roybal said most of the meetings were about personnel. He said the board is a private nonprofit contracted to make decisions on behalf of the public Vision program and its public staff that aims to follow open meetings laws because that goal is in the school’s contract.
The program’s bylaws, however, state the group “is a local public body subject to the provisions of Colorado Open Meetings Law.” Denver attorney Steve Zansberg, who works on behalf of the Colorado Press Association, said the law covers “any committee to which a governmental agency has been delegated decision-making authority.”
“If they did not record executive sessions or made any decisions in an executive session, they violated the law,” Zansberg wrote in an email.
Espinoza said the board plans to start recording its executive sessions but didn’t always in the past. Open Meetings Law requires public boards to go into executive session during a regular or special meeting and record executive sessions on tape and in writing. The board typically has its executive sessions before regular meetings open, Roybal said. He said all votes for decisions discussed in executive sessions have been taken in public after the session.
Howard said the board’s actions were a result of board members being new to the board process and were not made with any deliberate malicious intent.
“We keep telling these people we want to be a better board,” she said. “We want to be above board. We don’t want to seem like we’re going to hide.”
Rachel and Adam Cochran said they’re worried about what may already be hidden. They want to know the reasoning behind decisions made in votes following executive sessions, why regular meeting minutes do not mention why bylaws were changed, and why a Vision employee is the board’s secretary even though bylaws say a board member should have that position.
“It would be OK if they were just bad at keeping minutes, but it’s a list of things,” Adam Cochran said.
That list includes the board’s decision to continue to fund curriculum for Vision parents who participate in Living Springs Conservatory, a local home-school program that pools students together for classes such as art and creative writing. Howard serves on the board for the conservatory and said parents pay a fee and don’t use the $2,000 they get from the district for home-schooling to pay the fee. Rachel Cochran said it’s a conflict of interest for Howard to serve on both the Living Springs and the Vision boards and that she worries public money may be used to fund programming for the Christian home-school program, which would be against Vision bylaws.
The Cochrans and Struble have written letters asking both Howard and Roybal to step down because they say Roybal, as a district employee, may have his own conflict of interest because he represents other alternative schools in the district. Roybal said he serves on many boards, but not on any other school boards. Rachel Cochran said that experience on other boards should have taught him more about Open Meetings Law and is another reason she wants him to resign.
“He should be keeping them in line,” she said.
Issues still to be addressed
Parents involved in the advisory committee say they want people to know they have a problem with the board of stewards, not the Vision program. Rebecca Stevenson, who has three children in the program, said she loves the program and wants to help it thrive with the original bylaws and term limits reinstated and the number of members returned to between six and nine stewards.
“I didn’t understand the increase in numbers unless they have more people actively attending meetings, but I’m not seeing that in the minutes,” she said.
Stevenson said parents had a chance to speak to the board in February and March but she felt it was a “negative” experience and she didn’t feel like she got any answers from the board. Earlier this month, Stevenson handed out fliers about the bylaw changes, request for resignations, and open meeting law procedure while Vision parents and children gathered for Transitional Colorado Assessment Plan testing at a local church. She said some parents were thankful to learn more, some didn’t say much, and Howard was not happy with her.
“My son was taking TCAP. I was emotional about it,” Howard said. “I calmed down and looked at the statements. Some of the things were true and some are on the edge of true.”
Prieto said the board realizes it has more to learn about hosting meetings and writing bylaws. The board has hired a local consultant, Illene Roggensack of Third Sector Innovations, to make suggestions for bringing the board and its documents into legal compliance. Prieto said she hopes parents will be patient and ease off on requests for Howard and Roybal to step down.
“We appreciate their passion and concern; we just need changes to be done in a sensible time,” Prieto said.
Howard and Prieto said they also plan to make sure a new contract is adopted as soon as possible for Vision and the school district. The program’s contract ran out last summer and was renewed monthly until the end of February 2012, when it finally expired. Scofield said the delay was due to the district dealing with other matters last year, such as budget cuts, and that district employees have assured her they will get a new contract soon.
“I trust we’ll have a continuing relationship but it is a legally precarious situation to be in,” Scofield said.
Scofield said parents have called her daily since the fliers were passed out and asked if the district will end the program due to concerns about the board.
“I tell them I can’t give you that reassurance but I encourage you to get involved and be active in your child’s school,” she said.