Approving a nearly $1 billion annual budget, evaluating schools for potential closure and facing ceaseless rebuke from frustrated parents are all challenges facing the Jeffco school board. But the board’s biggest hurdle seems to be overcoming its own dysfunction.
After spending the better part of an hour Feb. 3 debating at a public meeting the procedural intricacies of moving items from the consent agenda to the discussion agenda, the board’s morale clearly deteriorated. Some members rested their weary heads in their hands as they spent another 25 minutes constructing an agenda for the next meeting.
By their own admission, the board of five elected officials has become a study in contentiousness.
“This board has, in my opinion, become increasingly contentious,” said board President Dave Thomas. “It’s my belief that a volunteer on this board ought to be able to do business in a certain amount of time. We’re already sitting here for four and half hours today. … I’ve sat on a number of boards. … Most of them were able to do an incredible amount of work in far less time.”
But the procedural discussion was important, board member Laura Boggs said, noting that the ability of individual members to move items off the consent agenda is critical.
The board’s current policy allows individual members to voice objections to the consent agenda, though a majority vote is required to move items to its discussion agenda.
“It ties to how well you bring on new board members,” she said. “In order for a board to perform governance well, you have to have the ability for any one member to take things off the consent agenda and to discuss that. … We’re here to bring the opinions of our constituents to this table. If we can’t take things off the consent agenda to do that, we have significantly changed our role.”
Another subject that sparked annoyance was the prospect of long board meetings held on Saturdays. One board member objected to the meetings if not all could attend, and several more objected to the very idea of such meetings, which they called seriously unproductive.
“We are just spinning our wheels tonight,” said board member Paula Noonan. “We spent I don’t know how many Saturdays last year going in circles.”
But considering the enormous tasks facing the board, the Saturday meetings could be helpful, some argued.
“I am really disappointed. I think we have a lot of important work to do,” said board member Jane Barnes. “I think the best time to do that is in a little less formal setting, where we can really get into some of these huge issues that we have to face.”
Regarding the school board’s glacial progress on certain issues, Thomas said he attempts, as president, to keep the group on track.
“I try. Believe me, I try,” he said to Barnes, who identified the group’s collective focus as his responsibility. “We waste an incredible amount of time, in my opinion.”
But making five people with disparate perspectives function as a team is not an easy task, Barnes explained.
“I think that the school board is a much different experience than most people imagine,” she said. “We function as a group. … Individually, no one has any authority.”
Ironically, what the group needs most to increase its efficiency is time, she said, explaining that having relatively new members has contributed to the slowdowns.
“It’s unusual you would have this many new people at one time. It just takes a long time to sort out,” she said. “It’s a really big learning curve.”