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A public gathering of five Colorado school board presidents sparked concern among some in Jefferson County who are uneasy about the direction their current school board may be heading.
The Jan. 8 meeting at Jose O'Shea's restaurant in Lakewood included Douglas County School Board president Kevin Larsen and Jefferson County School Board president Ken Witt, and the presidents of Steamboat Springs, Thompson and Adams 12 Five Star districts.
Jeffco teachers' union staff member Scott Kwasny photographed the men, after he said a parent eating at the restaurant alerted him and others after reportedly overhearing the men talking about teacher contracts.
Because the five serve on different boards, they did not violate Colorado's open-meetings law, which requires a gathering of three or more members of a local governmental body to be open to the public.
“I know they are the presidents of the Tea Party reform boards in Colorado,” Kwasny said. “From my understanding, they were talking about contracts; that's all I know.”
Witt did not respond “yes” or “no” to questions from Colorado Community Media asking whether the board presidents discussed teacher contracts. He said most of the discussion was about school financing, testing and other education-related topics related to the Colorado legislative session.
“I don't recall a particular conversation about contracts,” he said. “I'm sure we discussed whatever was on our minds. That's a Jeffco issue I'm not sure any of them care about.”
Witt noted the day the men met was the same day the Colorado State Board of Education voted to let school districts seek waivers from March PARCC testing, and that was a central point of their discussion.
“It was a great opportunity to sit down and chat with other boards about their thoughts around the PARCC waiver,” he said. “I do my best to meet with every school board across the state, and will continue to do so.”
Kwasny, communications director for the Jefferson County Education Association, said the association believes Jeffco plans to follow in Douglas County's footsteps, eventually severing its contract with the teachers' union and enacting other contentious reforms.
“We're expecting the same script to play out here in Jeffco,” said Kwasny. “We've had a collaborative relationship for 45 years, and we're going to do everything we can to come out of it with a contract.
“We've certainly benefitted from seeing (negotiations) play out in Douglas County, but I don't know if the results will be different.”
Witt, elected to the Jeffco school board in November 2013 with two other conservative candidates, said then the board had no intention of being Douglas County.
Former DCSD assistant superintendent of secondary education Dan McMinimee, who led the ultimately unsuccessful 2012 Douglas County teachers' union negotiations, was hired as Jeffco's superintendent in June 2014.
The Jefferson County board declared during its Jan. 15 meeting its intention to negotiate a successful agreement with the teachers' union, Witt said.
“It's my hope we can all work together and come up with the right contract terms to make sure we are aligned for an effective teacher in teach classroom, recognizing and rewarding great teachers, and efficiently using our resources to maximize academic achievement.”
He added, “It takes two parties to arrive at an agreement.”
Larsen said also did not recall discussing teacher contracts.
“That's just not what we're (DCSD) focused on,” he said. “We have moved forward. That's a decision they get to make.”
Roger Good, president of the Steamboat Springs School Board, also said he could not remember such a conversation.
“If there was, I don't recall it,” he said. “We spent a great deal of time talking about the state board allowing options for testing.”
Adams 12 Five Star board president Mark Clark said it was a brief get-together to discuss best practices and learn what is happening in other districts.
“To me, it was just a chance to talk to my peers,” he said. “We were all drinking tea, so I guess it could be considered a tea party. But I don't know their (the other presidents') political stance; that's not what we discussed. We were just talking about what's best for our kids.”
Larsen said he met the men met during December's Colorado Association of School Boards annual convention, and they decided to meet again.
“It's called networking,” he said. “You reach out when there are issues of common interest. It's timely and smart to be looking at issues we have in common, especially now that the legislative session has started.
“Every district is unique, but we've got some things in common.”
Larsen said the men met in a public place because they had nothing to hide. He also said his positions on education issues are not based on politics.
“Some people may believe it and some may not, but everything I'm trying to do for Douglas County School District, I'm doing it to the best of my ability with the best interest of kids in mind,” Larsen said.
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