Two state bills working their way through the legislature could have important, albeit very different, effects on DPS this fall. One allows school board members to be paid and the other relates to how much public disclosure is needed regarding superintendent searches. As of publication, neither bill had yet passed both chambers, but both appear to have broad enough support to reach the governor’s desk.
Paying School Board Members
Currently, all school board members in Colorado serve in a volunteer capacity, which House Bill 21-1055 could change. The bill, sponsored by East Denver Representative Steven Woodrow and Jefferson County Senator Brittany Pettersen, removes the restriction on paying board members and lets local boards decide whether to pay members and how much. Proponents argue that the decision is best made locally and that many boards aren’t representative of their student populations. Opponents questioned whether paying board members is the best use of funds in Colorado’s often underfunded school districts.
North Denver’s house members, representatives Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez and Alex Valdez, agreed with the proponents and are supportive of the bill. “I’ve always been shocked there’s no kind of compensation,” Gonzales-Gutierrez told The Denver North Star, adding that unpaid positions “limits who can run.” Working class parents who may be interested often don’t have the time to serve on a volunteer board and she believes compensation can allow more diverse voices not just in DPS, but across the state, noting that Garfield County, a West Slope county with a relatively high Latinx population, only elected their first Latina school board member in the last election.
Valdez echoed the same sentiment. “Public service is supposed to be for anybody and everybody. A system that doesn’t pay, or underpays, limits those who can do the job to the independently wealthy and retired.” Valdez added that elected titles don’t pay rent or put food on the table and he believes the option to pay members can result in better boards focused on kids.
Notably, the state legislature itself is considered a part time job, paying $40,242/year plus a per diem when in session (per diem varies based on distance a legislator lives from the capitol). Both Gonzales-Gutierrez and Valdez have other jobs in addition to their roles in the legislature.
Balancing Privacy and Public Interest Concerns
Currently, when a public body, such as a school district, is choosing a new superintendent or other executive, they’re required to release the names of finalists for that position. The idea behind the current law is that the public has a right to know who was not chosen for key positions and that transparency can help ensure qualified candidates are not ignored in favor of less qualified politically-connected candidates or other discriminatory decisions.
The opposing argument is that the current law discourages candidates who have concerns about their applications being released publicly. If, for example, a person in a number two or three position in a neighboring school district is applying for a superintendent position but doesn’t get the job, they could be risking reprisal at their current employer when they learn that person is trying to leave.
Several districts, including DPS, have received criticism in past years for only releasing one finalist, stating they were complying with the law because they only had one finalist. HB-1051 may make that argument a moot point, as it changes the criteria so public bodies like school districts and higher education institutions only have to list one finalist. Proponents argue it protects applicants. Opponents argue it restricts the public’s access to information.
Both of North Denver’s house members supported this bill as well, though both told The Denver North Star the decision was a difficult one due to competing interests. Gonzales-Gutierrez said she was “thinking about the applicants themselves,” and that they have a right to privacy. For Valdez, “it was a hard bill,” adding that he was “right down the middle.” In addition to the privacy concerns, he found the bipartisan support from the committee compelling when the bill went to the floor for a full vote.