Our View: Hayden board acted poorly
April 4, 2010
The Hayden School Board's handling of recent administrative positions and structure has been disappointing at best and illegal at worst. Hayden taxpayers and parents deserve open, honest discussion about school district issues and should expect their elected representatives to strictly obey Colorado's open meetings law. We fear that's not what they're getting.
The School Board's questionable moves took place last week, when it met in executive session for three hours and then emerged, only to approve three motions within five minutes with almost no substantive discussion about how board members reached the conclusions they did. The result was to alter the district's administrative structure to include a half-time superintendent and a full-time secondary school principal; approve the hiring of former superintendent Mike Luppes for the new half-time position; and approve current Hayden High School Principal Troy Zabel as the new full-time secondary school principal. Beginning in the fall, Zabel will oversee the district's combined 6-12 secondary school.
The School Board's actions behind closed doors last week raise three potential conflicts with Colorado's open meetings laws.
First, the School Board said it entered into the executive, or secret, session to discuss personnel matters and matters subject to negotiations. The law makes clear that personnel matters must be specific to the particular district employee who is the subject of the executive session. But subsequent interviews with officials, including board President Brian Hoza, make clear that much of the closed-door conversations were not about specific individuals, but about gathering input from administrators about how to restructure the district's administrative staff. That's a policy discussion, not a personnel discussion. And policy discussions must be held in open session. How else are taxpayers and parents supposed to know the reasoning and rationale behind the decisions made by their elected representatives if those conversations and debates aren't held in public?
And let there be no doubt that there was disagreement among board members. Two of the motions — the altering of the administrative structure and the hiring of Luppes — passed narrowly by a 3-2 vote, with members Kurt Frentress and Tim Frentress dissenting. Yet there was little in the way of public discussion about why the board was split the way it was.
That leads us to the second problem with the School Board's actions last week.
It is illegal for public bodies such as the School Board to make decisions in executive session. Although board members talked about the district's administrative structure before entering into last week's marathon executive session, the conversation was extensive and incomplete. In fact, it was clear that there was no board consensus about how to proceed. Three hours later, after emerging from behind closed doors, it took the board less than five minutes to make and approve three motions. There was little discussion about the motions before or after they were made and voted on. That should lead any reasonable person to conclude that the bulk of those conversations happened in private, and those decisions also were made in private. The votes in public session did little more than ratify a decision made behind closed doors.
Finally, the School Board's hiring of half-time Superintendent Mike Luppes appears to be in clear violation of an open meetings law requirement that public bodies announce finalists for a CEO position such as superintendent and then wait at least two weeks before a vote is made to hire. The only way for the School Board's hiring of Luppes to be legally sufficient would have been for it to emerge from executive session, announce who the finalists were — even if there was only one — and then wait two weeks to make an official hire. Furthermore, Hayden residents would presumably want to know whether the board interviewed its lone superintendent candidate before hiring him. Such interviews would have to be held in public. But there was no public interview of Luppes.
The Hayden School District, like most of Colorado's public school systems, is going through a difficult period of decreasing revenues and challenging budget cuts. The job of School Board members isn't easy, but it's the one they signed up for. They have an obligation to their constituents to follow the law. If and when that means having difficult conversations in public meetings, then so be it. As it stands, it appears Hayden's elected board members fell short of their obligation to voters, taxpayers and the law.