Reflections from an Outgoing School Board Member

school-crossingRecently we were able to snag some communication time with outgoing Jeffco School Board member and former board president Lesley Dahlkemper.  We wanted to get a clear view from a current board member about what was working and what was not working on the school board.  Future board members, regardless of their political stripes, can learn valuable insights from a veteran.  As a voter, please consider her wins and losses as you contemplate the types of members you’d like to see on the board in the future.

Ms. Dahlkemper’s top two accomplishments were around budgeting and community engagement.  She came in during a time of very tight budget constraints.  “The board collaborated with community members, parents, district leaders, educators and the employee associations to make decisions that kept difficult budget cuts away from classrooms,” she said. “This work was tied with walking door-to-door and phone banking with other parents and community members to pass a modest bond package that addressed immediate needs to keep students ‘safe, warm and dry’ as well as a mill levy package to maintain Outdoor Lab, band, class sizes, and other services, which were at risk.”  It was a strong, collaborative community effort.  It was also bipartisan, and both and both Democratic and Republican parents worked on the effort.

With respect to community engagement, she said, “As board president, I worked with my board colleagues and the Colorado Association of School Boards to draft the policy. An excerpt from the policy states: ‘The board believes that engaging our community is essential to preserving a strong system of public education. The board’s policies and decisions should reflect community values, good educational practice and available financial resources.’ Jeffco is one of only a handful of school  boards with such a policy.”

Unfortunately, community engagement takes more than just listening.  It takes courage to act according to the wishes of the public.  Ms. Dahlkemper explained “My greatest disappointment [over the last two years] was several failed motions during multiple board meetings to fund full-day kindergarten for schools with students on the cusp of free- and reduced-lunch.”

The board was presented with data, many times, about this critical need and impact it makes on children.  During her first two years, the former board did approve full-day kindergarten funding for more than one dozen at risk schools, but the current board repeatedly turned down her motions on a 3-2 vote in the last two years.

Not only should the board listen and act according to the public wishes to the degree they can with budget constraints, they should also listen to each other. Jeffco Schools has had a rich tradition of board members with diverse views who have worked together in the best interests of all children.

In the past, they listened closely to our community to identify priorities.  They followed board policies that required them to study a proposal and ask questions – with a vote always occurring at the second meeting.  “It’s been disheartening to see surprise after surprise introduced at the board table,” she said. “These surprises range from hiring a school board attorney prior to knowing his hourly rate and scope of work to a recent resolution gutting months of work by parent and district leaders designed to better align the district accountability committee to state law to a new compensation system that was never fully vetted with Ms. Fellman, me or employees – as policy requires.”

The message from this outgoing member could not be more clear:  “Listen to the community – including those with whom you agree and disagree. Study the issues. Ask lots of questions. Find common ground and build from there. Communicate clearly – and in a variety of ways – to the public about the board’s rationale for its decisions. Work closely with other board members to come up with meaningful, innovative solutions to complex challenges. Always remember that your decisions affect 85,000 children and the quality of Jeffco’s schools. These decisions have implications for us all regardless of whether we have children enrolled in a Jeffco school. Great schools and great communities go hand-in-hand. It is a privilege to serve on the Jeffco school board.”

As for staying engaged in education, don’t worry.  Besides her full time job in education, Ms. Dahlkemper is involved in her daughter’s school – both its PTA and school accountability committees. As any parent of a tween knows, being a supportive, present parent is key at this time in her daughter’s life.  She will have much more time to do this effectively.

On the fun side, she’ll spend her Sundays reading the New York Times and Denver Post cover to cover in lieu of Board Docs. Most of all she says, “I’m eager to spend more time with my daughter, Grace, and my husband, Mike. It seems like just yesterday we were taking Grace to Rooney Ranch Elementary School for her first day of kindergarten. In two short years, she will be in high school.  In six years, she will graduate from high school. Time is fleeting. I want to be fully present for her and for Mike.”

 

10.8.15 Witt’s Carnival Sideshow

If you saw Witt’s stunt this morning–and it’s hard to imagine that you didn’t because social media has not stopped talking about it since–you know that it was merely a distraction.

  1. The Independent Ethics Commission has no jurisdiction over Colorado school board members (see page 6).
  2. The IEC isn’t meeting until Nov. 6 — after the election.
  3. There’s no reason for them to call a special early meeting (see #1, above).

Witt’s complaint only asks if voting on the matter in a public meeting was a violation of sunshine laws, failing to make the distinction between voting in public and deciding in public. Sunshine laws exist to prevent elected officials from merely rubber-stamping behind-the-scenes decisions in public.

Witt, John Newkirk, and Julie Williams made the decision to hire Brad Miller before the Dec. 13 board meeting.  We know because Bob Kerrigan, president of the Thompson School District Board of Education, told his fellow board members that Jeffco had a school board attorney — and told them this on Wednesday, a full day before the Dec. 13 Jeffco BOE meeting where the issue was first discussed in public.

Not only did Kerrigan know that Jeffco had already hired a firm 24 hours before the BOE met to discuss the issue, he knew that Jeffco would be hiring Brad Miller himself, as reported by the Reporter Herald on Dec. 12:

Kerrigan then revealed that a contract had already been drawn up by a Colorado Springs-based law firm that currently represents Jefferson County schools.

The proposed contract, dated two days after Kerrigan was elected board president, begins: “We are pleased that the District has asked Millers Sparks LLC … to represent Thompson.”

It’s an issue we’ve written about multiple times, and it’s one of many, many reasons to vote yes on the recall.

Meanwhile, we’ll leave you with some of today’s highlights, such as the 7 News story “Jeffco Public Schools board president Ken Witt stunts for attention as he faces recall” (and hopefully this clip will open with the anchor saying “Bizarre news out of Jeffco today” because that’s by far our favorite).

And we’ll end with one of the many, many funny social media posts that we saw in our feed today:

Charles Buchanan on Twitter

Kinda wish Witt had ended the press-stunt with a citizens arrest of himself. #Copolitics #JeffcoRecall #JeffCo

Keep fighting, JeffCo!


 

Recall 101: Your Guide to the Candidates and Issues

DSCN0244You asked and we did it: a Recall 101 page highlighting the top issues that prompted the recall.

There’s a tab at the top of our website homepage so you can access it easily and share it with others. Thanks to our readers for the suggestion!


 

Story #9 from 2013-2015 Poll Results: Against Policy, Witt Repeatedly Withholds Information and Forces Surprise Votes

Last week, we put forth a poll asking you to select the Top 10 most disturbing stories out of the 30 that we selected from the current Jeffco School Board majority’s tenure. We are amidst counting down the Top 10, as voted on by more than 400 people. Today is Story #9:

What Happened: First, check out the two videos here, courtesy Support Jeffco Kids and Transparency Jeffco:

Support Jeffco Kids | Facebook

One more small clip. What is the rush? Why not thoughtful discussion? Why not follow policy? They already have the votes to do anything they want to do,…

Board of Education 12-12-13

This is video from the December 12th, 2013 board of education meeting and study session. In it, the board discusses hiring an attorney solely to represent the board.

If these were the only two instances of last-minute information sharing, surprise motions, and violations of “Sunshine Laws,” that would be troubling enough. Rest assured, these videos from September 2015 and December 2013 are just the bookends of a long string of such instances. For strategic reasons, maybe not wanting community criticism, Ken Witt hides as much information as possible from Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman. Dahlkemper and Fellman protest that they have not had enough time to review the motion at hand or the relevant background information. They have also not had enough time to ask appropriate questions. Sometimes they (correctly) allege that the late information sharing and surprise vote-taking go against stated board policy. Witt goes ahead and holds the vote anyway. John Newkirk and Julie Williams, who have obviously been apprised of the background information, go along with Witt and create a 3-2 vote.

Why It Matters: Trust and good governance. The linchpin of our democratic republic is informed decision making, first by voters about candidates, and then by elected officials about the things they’re voting on. Ours is a country, and a community, that is fine with being in the minority of opinion, if we feel like the issues have been thought through and discussed by the officials we’ve elected. Dahlkemper and Fellman, over and over, could not make informed decisions, because Witt consistently didn’t allow them to be informed in a reasonable manner. Voters see through that. It’s as if everyone that voted for Dahlkemper and Fellman was being disenfranchised every time this happened. People expect better from our public officials.

Furthermore, the pubic deserves to hear spirited debate and a critical back-and-forth about the tough issues facing the school district, even if the discussion still results in a 3-2 vote. Short-circuiting such discussion is the purview of despotic leaders. It’s fear-driven. For a “leader” who claims a “mandate” from the voters, to then hide so many discussions about his decisions, there’s a level of hypocrisy that’s obvious to anyone that’s fair-minded.

As was pointed out many times: they had the votes, why did Witt keep doing this? Was it to not allow critical discussion? Was it that their invisible handlers were impatient to keep WNW on a certain timeline according to their playbook, so they didn’t want to have votes spill over or tabled until the next board meeting? Was it just clumsiness and a Nixonian above-the-law arrogance? Perhaps all three of those things? We’ll never know, but we do know that the frequency with which this happened made a lot of people take notice, and that it further eroded whatever trust this board had.

With that, your new daily reminder to vote Lasell, Stevens, Rupert, Harmon, and Mitchell, a decidedly competent and independent-thinking group.

JeffCo Evangelical Christian: Why I Support the Recall

FaithfulFedUpA Special Note to JCSBW Readers: It’s no secret that Ken Witt, Julie Williams, and John Newkirk have been specifically courting the evangelical Christian crowd as a voting bloc.  Many, maybe most of us, that write for JCSBW are Christian too, though we see some issues a little differently than our school board majority. 

We have shared a lot of important information with you the last two years, and at this point we imagine that we’re “preaching to the choir” much of the time. That’s one of the reasons that we have kept asking you to share our stories, whether by email or on Facebook. This is a classic case.

We are very impressed by this letter in response to our “Faithful and Fed Up” request and are guessing that you probably know some good Christian people who need the “permission” that this reader is giving. So with two weeks to go before people get their ballots, please do share.

I’m an evangelical Christian and will be voting to recall Ken Witt, Julie Williams, and John Newkirk.

I attend a conservative Christian church in Jeffco. Probably not the most conservative church in Jeffco, but pretty conservative. I don’t know everyone’s political backgrounds, but it seems like most members are Republican, with some Independents and I think there are a few Democrats too. I’m not the most conservative in my church, but maybe average. I’m a Republican who works in a corporate environment.

My family and I have been hearing people at our church that are discontented with this board but hesitate to vote against them because the board calls themselves conservative and Christian, and so the people tend to believe everything this board says. I think that Christians need to look long and hard at this board majority, and then know that they do have permission to vote against them. I do like that they are Christians, but just because they are Christians does necessarily not make them good public officials.

Here’s  my thinking. My biggest concern is glorifying His Kingdom however I can through my life. I tend to have views consistent with most Republicans, but I am sometimes slow to choose sides, especially on local issues, until I see that one side is clearly working to advance His Kingdom through their values. I do understand that elected officials aren’t appointed to force Christianity on the community, but I do think I can tell when their Christian values are shining through their actions. That is important to me.

I don’t question the faith of Julie Williams, John Newkirk, and Ken Witt. That’s dangerous territory. We are all sinners and we are all made in Christ’s image. We have to take one another’s faith statements at face value. I believe that they are Christians and they are probably good family members.

What I do have a problem with is how they treat others from their public office.

You see, I don’t think God really cares that much about exactly how schools are structured, whether there’s a teachers’ union or not, how compensation packages work, and all the legal stuff we get involved in. My reading of scripture is that Christ says to leave worry about all that stuff behind. Now, there’s a time and a place for those questions, and our public officials have to make tough choices. I get that, but I don’t think that God sides with one side or the other very much on those kinds of issues. God wants us to do our best but God doesn’t take very many hardline policy stances. I’ve heard from enough teachers and other parents that have concerns that I trust that there are two sides to all of these issues, anyway. So I don’t think that God cares that much about the exact decisions, but God does care that these issues get resolved humanely, truthfully, respectfully. That’s not what I see happening.

I do see fault on both sides, or maybe it’s on all sides. Still, here’s what I’d challenge my Christian friends to do. You know those Planned Parenthood videos? Maybe you watched one, and were shocked and disgusted, but if you’re fair-minded, maybe you thought “well this looks bad but maybe this is a little out of context and heavily edited.” But then you watched more of the videos and it’s clear, there’s a pattern of terrible problems.

The same thing happened to me with the school board majority in Jeffco. A friend of mine forwarded a clip from one of their meetings about a year ago. The behavior in the video by Ken Witt was a lot less shocking than what’s in the Planned Parenthood video, but that doesn’t make it right and I couldn’t stop being bothered by it.

I thought maybe he was having a bad night or the clip was taken out of context. I started watching other videos of the school board. The more I watched other videos and live-streamed part of a couple other meetings, the more I saw the same patterns. Ken Witt being rude and dismissive to speakers and to the other board members. John Newkirk and Julie Williams just sitting there and not speaking up. It was totally clear that at times they weren’t being open about their plans. Something is going on there and it seems like they are being guided. They make decisions without input from the other board members, and it seems sometimes it really is in secret. They don’t seem to take seriously those who have worked in the district for a long time, or parents, or teachers, who disagree with them. They can’t agree with everyone, but I just expect them to take them seriously and think it through. I know how I’ve felt when liberal politicians just dismiss more conservative points of view; this is no different. On top of that, I do believe that they are not following their own policies about transparency and notice.

I think about Micah 6:8: “What Does The Lord Require of Thee? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

My ideal public official is a Christian who’s guided by their Christian values. If a Christian seems to be acting for some other purposes, then the “Christian” label doesn’t make that much difference to me in their public role. Some people have accused those that are against the board majority of having poor behavior. I’ve seen some of that too, but I also know that people act that way when they’re not being listened to. That happens in any business environment where employees and clients don’t feel heard. I don’t think that Ken Witt just disagrees; he seems to show no signs of listening. He has to show that he is listening.

It’s Ken Witt’s job, and the job of John Newkirk and Julie Williams, to create that environment. They are not doing that. It doesn’t excuse all the behaviors from their opponents, but the buck has to stop with them. The pattern is clear: they do not seem to be acting humbly or respectfully. I hope that if they survive the recall, they will turn that around, and if they don’t survive the recall, they will figure out ways to prioritize respect and humility a little more in whatever public lives they later have. They may be Christians and I appreciate that, but in my opinion the way they have exercised power has not done honor to Christ’s name.

-Anonymous