District 51 School Board members are expressing sadness and frustration after a pair of recent meetings devolved into raucous rallies.
An Aug. 3 meeting was temporarily suspended after parents in the audience yelled at the school district for discussing incentives for vaccinated staff. And, just this week, the in-person portion of Tuesday’s board meeting ended with the board receiving a police escort to their cars as some in the audience called for School District 51 Superintendent Diana Sirko to resign or be arrested.
The board reconvened on a publicly available virtual livestream over Vimeo later that night, disappointed in how the meeting unraveled.
“Nothing was accomplished on their end, whatever their purpose or goal was. If it was destruction and bringing everything down, that worked,” Board Member Paul Pitton said after the meeting had gone virtual. “But I think they’re trying — who knows, actually. It was just short of blowing up into something like at the (U.S.) Capitol.”
“I felt uncomfortable tonight, I felt bullied. I know no one made an actual threat but it felt like a threatening atmosphere,” Board Member Dr. Amy Davis said. “I have a day job. I don’t need to feel threatened doing a volunteer job.
“I’m not going to attend a meeting (in-person) where I feel bullied and threatened,” Davis said.
The havoc at Tuesday night’s business meeting regarded a discussion over rules dealing with audience comments.
Board President Tom Parrish prefaced the section saying that it would be capped at 45 minutes so that the board could conduct business in a timely manner. Many in the audience were upset at an agenda item that would put a time limit on the section, feeling they were being silenced by the board. Speakers already are limited to three minutes each and the board’s proposal would set a time limit on top of that for the total amount of public comment. That item was eventually tabled when the board reconvened virtually.
“If we don’t put a cap on these, the meetings go late. Last night, I think we finished at 10:30 p.m.,” Parrish told the Daily Sentinel on Wednesday. “When I started here, our meetings would go so long that we wouldn’t get home till 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. and we have day jobs.”
WHAT STARTED flap
Most of the 12 speakers Tuesday night repeated anti-vaccination and anti-mask claims during their allotted three minutes. School District 51 does not have a mask mandate in place and has not entertained the idea of a vaccination mandate. Neither topic was on Tuesday’s agenda.
After the 12th speaker, Parrish ended the public comment section to move on with the meeting, prompting anger from the crowd.
Parrish said he had counted 15 public comment cards, which people have to fill out in order to speak. At three minutes a piece, that came out to 45 minutes, he explained. The recorded meeting on Vimeo shows that only 12 people spoke for just under 33 minutes, collectively.
After some back and forth, Parrish called for a 10-minute recess.
Upon returning, the board attempted to go into Sirko’s superintendent report but the audience pushed back. A Grand Junction Police Department officer tried to calm the crowd down to no avail.
Parrish then called for an executive session that was on the agenda and the board left the room, leading some in the audience to resume speaking without the board present.
As one woman read to the crowd an anti-vaccination rendition of the 1930s Abbott and Costello classic, “Who’s on First?,” the board could be seen outside receiving a police escort to their cars.
Davis said some community members have told her that they don’t go to meetings out of fear for how they’ll be treated by the regular crowd.
One woman voiced support for the board and masks on Tuesday, and was met with jeers from the crowd.
Board Member Doug Levinson expressed his frustration that his colleagues felt unsafe, and that he did, too. Levinson floated the idea of having a presence from the GJPD or Mesa County Sheriff’s Office to ensure that the meetings are done safely.
“Our public meetings have been hijacked,” Levinson said. “How far does it go until you feel threatened? When we have to get police escorts to our vehicles. I would have never believed that would happen.”
Many parents said that they feel unheard by the board, citing that they don’t receive answers from emails. The board said that they do read all emails but don’t have the time to respond to each one.
The board floated bringing public comment sections to work sessions as well, something that they said their rules require but hasn’t been in practice for some time.
Legally, the board isn’t required to host public comment sections — just public meetings.
But the board didn’t entertain that notion.
“We want to hear what people have to say. A lot of what people said last night had nothing to do with the agenda, but we do find it relevant and important,” Parrish said. “The purpose of these meetings isn’t solely to get public opinion. That’s just a part of it.”
Parrish and Trish Mahre are going to meet with Mesa County Commissioners and Grand Junction City Council members to see how they handle public comments.
Parrish said that he also wants to ensure that they aren’t hearing from just one side.
“We need to have a variety of opinions. I don’t know how we do that,” he said. “I’ve been here for eight years and I’ve never seen anything like last night. We used to have coffee with the public before COVID-19 and it was so civil. It’s really disheartening.”