While Mesa County Valley School Board’s three new members – Andrea Haitz, Angela Lema, and Will Jones – ran as a “conservative bloc” and talked about the need for transparency during their campaigns, the trio has been less than transparent regarding one of their first items of business since being sworn in November 30.
Doug Levinson, the sole remaining school board member from the last board of directors, and new member Kari Sholtes – appointed to replace Paul Pitton, who retired this year – were neither informed nor consulted before being asked to vote during the December 14 school board meeting to hire Colorado Springs law firm Miller Farmer to represent the school district.
Miller Farmer Law describes itself as “a mission-driven law practice that provides comprehensive legal counsel to schools, non-profits, and ministries throughout the state of Colorado.” Founder Brad Miller formerly represented the Thompson School District in Loveland. He was hired as additional counsel by a new conservative majority that included his law clerk, Bryce Carlson, who is now an associate at Miller Farmer Law and the proposed lead attorney to represent Mesa’s District 51 School Board. Miller was also hired in 2015 by the Jefferson County School Board in a controversial process by a new conservative majority that took place with very little notice and no consultation with the board’s minority members.
“We’re a board – this was a unilateral decision and you want to vote to approve?” Levinson asked, toward the end of the five-hour board meeting when they began discussing the issue. “It’s disheartening to me as a board member. How does this happen? As a board, there are questions that need to be answered for the community’s sake.”
The likely higher cost of hiring an out-of-town firm is one consideration. That concern was mentioned a few times during the meeting’s public comment period.
Two years ago, District 51 Superintendent Diane Sirko suggested switching from an outside law firm to using in-house Counsel John Williams for its legal services – a move that saved the school district roughly $300,000, she said.
“We have saved a significant amount of money,” and been able to respond quickly to clients’ needs, said Levinson. “We’ve had nothing but high praise for our current General Counsel John Williams.
Williams said he was unaware of being potentially replaced, until he saw the December 14 meeting agenda.
“Let’s do things collaboratively, get advice from experts, and guidance on process,” Levinson said to his fellow board members. We’re looking at spending up to a million dollars for legal services (to hire the Colorado Springs firm).”
Both Levinson and various commenters questioned why – if a change is needed – not hire a local law firm.
“We have taken pains over the years to go local if possible,” Levinson said. “We want to hire folks locally who are competent and can do the job.”
Lema said she met the members of the law firm during the process of campaigning. While she’s willing to give the issue a “little bit of time,” Lema said she’s “ready to vote,” to approve the contract.
The board eventually agreed to table the resolution until after the holidays.
The public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting lasted three hours – the first time the district has allocated more than 45 minutes for public comment. The District moved the meeting venue from the old R-5 High School in downtown Grand Junction to a ballroom at Colorado Mesa University due to an expected large turnout. Approximately 200 people attended the meeting.
“The last board meeting was packed,” Mesa Valley Education Association president Tim Couch said. “Teachers were standing in the back. Ninety-five percent (of attendees) were unmasked; it was crowded, I was uncomfortable.”
Mesa County residents, including members of Stand For The Constitution, have packed meetings in recent months to protest COVID-19 protocols, and the so-called teaching of Critical Race Theory. Although neither topic was on Tuesday’s agenda, much of the comment period was taken up by audience members voicing their disapproval of any masking policies. Under current COVID-19 protocols, mask-wearing is required for two weeks if a school experiences a 2% positivity rate.
Many in the audience told the board it should be up to parents whether their child wears a mask or not. Some claimed masks are harmful, and can lead to illness, suicide and even divorce.
A minority of attendees thanked the school district for keeping in-person schooling possible while keeping kids healthy. Laura Campbell, a family practice physician said she was “thrilled” with the masking guidelines that allowed schools to remain open during the 2020-2021 school year, though she expressed concern with winter approaching.
“The current protocols are an absolute minimum,” she said. “COVID is a political nightmare that never should have been.”
One man, opposed to any mask requirements, compared mask mandates to Nazism, and said COVID policies go against the Nuremburg Code.
While several chiropractors in the audience spoke against mask mandates, various medical professionals spoke up in favor of masking.
“I’m thankful for the current protocol which has allowed (kids to attend classes in-person,” said Mark Griffin, a surgeon in private practice, who also serves on the board of St. Mary’s Hospital. “I ask this school board to continue to be guided by the health department. We are not out of the pandemic. It’s not time to make sweeping changes and short-sighted policies now.”
Griffin went on to say how medical staff are “exhausted, and overwhelmed” – which prompted groans from the anti-mask crowd.
“I’m concerned about bringing the virus home to my family, so I’m vaccinated and masked at work,” he said. “So far, it’s worked.”
Palisade High School English teacher Matt Crowe described how a close friend is “fighting for his life” after suffering complications from COVID. He asked the board “will you protect human lives or allow unbridled parental authority?” He said some parents have knowingly sent sick kids to school.
Haitz, the board president, abruptly cut off Crowe, saying “Thank you, you’re done,” after he attempted to question the group about a manila envelope full of comment cards. He said he overheard a woman at the meeting say “Andrea said she would make sure we went in order.”
Crowe suspected the comment cards had been filled out prior to the meeting for an orchestrated event. Haitz said in an email that she was unaware of any manila envelope and that another woman handles all the comment cards.
Several attendees also expressed anger at the district’s use of a book titled “This Book is Anti-Racist: Twenty Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do the Work” by Tiffany Jewell. Several people were bothered by language in the book such as “colonization and imperialism,” and said the text seeks to divide people.
Laurel Collins, a senior at GJHS, disagreed – with both the anti-mask comments and the criticism of “This Book is Anti-Racist.”
She noted that many students at her school are out with COVID and that existing policies are not enough to stem the virus. She also said it made her “upset” to hear audience members booing a medical professional who was speaking.
“I actually read “This Book is Anti-Racist,” she said. “It’s good. The way they were talking about it is very much misconstrued. They’re saying the book encourages judging based on what a person looks like. But it actually basically acknowledges (that judging) is a reality and there’s a need to address and combat it.”