Apr 9, 2010 10:42 AM by Andy Koen

School board plans private meeting during pricey trip

The Harrison District 2 School Board is spending over $10,000 of taxpayer's money this weekend for a trip to the National School Board Association Annual Conference in Chicago.

While they are there, the board plans to hold a private meeting to discuss Superintendent Mike Miles performance and bonus pay.

A lawyer for the Colorado Education Association says the meeting violates state law which requires school board meetings to be open and accessible to the public.

Of the 10 largest school districts in El Paso and Pueblo counties, only four are sending board members to the conference; Harrison, Academy, Fountain Fort Carson and Widefield.

Academy is spending $7,200 to send four of its board members, Fountain Fort Carson is sending its superintendent and two board members and Widefield is sending one board member.

Many of the other districts told News First 5 they were not attending because of budget cuts. 

The law allows school boards to meet in private in what's called "executive session" when discussing personnel matters. 

Since the discussion wouldn't be made public anyway, Harrison Board Secretary Keith Varney sees nothing wrong with their holding such a meeting while in Chicago.

"Since it's in executive session, where we don't have people in there anyway, it's an opportunity for us where we're all together, or at least 4 of us are together, to discuss the issue."

But Sharyn Dreyer, the CEA attorney, says the board is overstepping its bounds.

"I believe it would violate the Colorado Open Meetings Law and the Colorado School Board Meetings Law, both of which require that all meetings be open to the public at all time," Dreyer said.

She says school boards can only hold an executive session as part of a regular public meeting.

"It would not be open to the public if it were being held in another state or another country, away from the public that this school board is working for."

As for the cost, Varney says the district isn't facing the same financial setbacks other districts in the county are as a result of the statewide cuts to K-12.

"We make our budget based on what we need," Varney said. "We're going to be able to give our employees who are not going on the E&R plan a 3 percent pay increase this year.  Not many districts are going to be able to say that they can do that."

The Effectiveness and Results plan is the name for Harrison's pay-for-performance program.  They are the first district in the state to enact a performance based pay schedule for teachers and other employees. 

Most other districts base pay increases on experience and education level.

"We'll be receiving less money from the state but we're finding places where we can spend less money and get the same thing done."

But Mike Stahl of the Pikes Peak Education Association questions the board's intentions for holding the meeting so far from home.

He says it is a conflict of interest for the board to discuss Miles' pay in secret anywhere in light of campaign contributions made by his family to three of the board members during the last election.

"I think it's very indicative of the secretive nature of this school board, they don't want the backdoor deals put out the public."

Miles' wife Karen wrote an $800 check from a joint account to school board president Deborah Hendrix during the last election cycle. 

She also made a $525 contribution to the Committee to Re-elect Effective Leadership which also supported the Hendrix campaign as well as board members Rick Price and Linda Pugh.

In an interview with News First 5 last week Hendrix said the donation has nothing to do with the decisions she makes as a board member.

Four of the five members of the Harrison Board of Education will be attending the trip. Board vice president Victor Torres opted not to go.

Varney says he and the other members will still try to include Torres in the meeting.

"We've made it clear that Victor is more than welcome to be involved through Skype or through telephone and, if necessary, we will have another conference when we come back."

Dreyer says the CEA will likely review the school board's action as it relates to the meeting but would not say whether they plan to pursue legal action in the matter.

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