RIDGWAY SCHOOLS Citizen questions board's adherence to open meetings law
By Bill Tiedje
Calling for greater openness in the decision-making process, Ridgway citizen Brian Donivan cited misconduct by the Ridgway School Board in use of executive sessions, hiring protocol and open meetings law violations during the public input portion of the board's regular meeting on Mar. 27.
In a formal letter to the board, Donivan listed five specific items that he requested the school board address immediately.
Referencing the Colorado Sunshine Law, specifically CRS section 24-6-402, Donivan questioned why the board, when entering executive session, did not "identify the matter to be discussed therein in as much detail as possible," as the statute mandated.
"I believe that the lack of details provided to the public is a key source for the mistrust that you are currently receiving from the community," Donivan said.
No members of the school board responded to any of Donivan's grievances, apart from Greg Lawler, who asked that Donivan retract a statement that questioned whether the board's handling of Principal Jim Bob Hobbs' contract had the kids in mind.
Donivan agreed to retract the statement and continued.
Mentioning several court decisions, Donivan pointed out that final policy decisions, including firings and hirings, must be made in public.
Donivan also referenced another court decision, "Bagby v. School Dist. No. 1," which stated open meeting laws are designed to avoid mere "rubber stamping" in public, decisions that are effectively made in private, since the public is entitled to know "the discussions, the motivations, the public arguments and other considerations which led to the discretion exercised…").
"The board is mandated to hold its meetings openly, so that the public may be able to listen and know what is going on," Donivan explained. "While it may be uncomfortable, it is proper and reasonable for the requirements of holding your public office."
Donivan also cited the board's failure to meet state statute by not achieving the required two-thirds majority vote before entering into an executive session on Mar. 12, following a meeting with the Ridgway secondary school staff.
The board retroactively voted to approve entering this executive session on Mar. 19.
Noting this violation of Colorado law, Donivan requested public disclosure and inspection of the Mar. 12 executive session be made available immediately.
According to Colorado Attorney General's Office Communications Director Carolyn Tyler, enforceability of open meetings practices are a local government issue.
"If there is a concern that the board violated state law regarding open meetings, then it is something that should be taken up as a private right of action by individuals in the community and brought to the courts," Tyler said.
Donivan's remaining three items included failure to publicly post for the hiring of the District Office Manager position; the board's lack of renewal of Hobbs' contract, nor any discussion of reasons not to do so — despite strong student and community support; and refusal to publicly acknowledge an employee grievance, involving the job title of his wife, Teresa Donivan.
Teresa Donivan's grievance related to her not being given the title of Office Manager, despite filling the responsibilities of the position for six months.
In these complaints, Donivan also noted a lack of professionalism by Superintendent Cheryl Gomez.
"The leadership that she had demonstrated is that of force and intimidation, and not of true leadership," Donivan said.
Regarding both Hobbs' and his wife's personnel matters, Donivan questioned why the board refused to discuss these matters in public, despite both individuals requesting they do so.
Again, Donivan pointed to a section of the open meetings law stating matters with respect to public employees are closed unless the subject of the executive session requests that it be conducted as an open meeting.
The school board held two executive sessions on Thursday night, involving a conference call with the school district attorney and a personnel matter.
No further information on the subject of the executive sessions was provided.
In other business, the board voted unanimously to repeal a number of job descriptions, following Colorado Association of School Boards advice that these be included in a staff handbook rather than kept as board policy.
Tammy Johnson, of the Uncompahgre Board of Cooperative Services (UnBOCS), gave an update on a growing trend of unfunded mandates by the state in terms of special education requirements.
Johnson explained the per pupil rate of funding for UnBOCS, currently $86 per student, could increase as a result of state special education requirements.