School board controversy isn't new for law firm that D51 board is targeting – The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

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Photos by MCKENZIE LANGE/The Daily Sentinel
Nearly 200 people gathered in the Colorado Mesa University Ballroom for the recent District 51 school board meeting.
Andrea Haitz is the school board president.

Photos by MCKENZIE LANGE/The Daily Sentinel
Nearly 200 people gathered in the Colorado Mesa University Ballroom for the recent District 51 school board meeting.
Andrea Haitz is the school board president.
When the Mesa County Valley School District 51 Board of Education added to its agenda an action item on its first business meeting for approving a contract for Colorado Springs-based legal counsel, it caught two of five board members — and much of the community that’s invested in the School District — off guard.
No public discussion was ever held by the board prior to Tuesday night’s meeting regarding the potential hiring of Miller Farmer Law Firm.
This, according to Denver lawyer and Colorado Freedom of Information Act Coalition President Steve Zansberg, constituted a violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law, given the likelihood that at least one of the three new board members acted unilaterally in arranging the contract.
Emails between District 51 board members and Miller Farmer Law Firm since the new members were sworn in were provided to The Daily Sentinel after a Colorado Open Records Act request.
On Dec. 7, the firm’s associate attorney, Bryce Carlson, sent Board President Andrea Haitz an engagement letter as well as a cover letter and also told her his plans to attend the Dec. 14 board meeting.
ITEM ADDED TO AGENDA
The next day, Haitz requested that District 51 Superintendent Diana Sirko add the item to approve the contract to the Dec. 14 business meeting agenda. Sirko and Assistant Superintendent Brian Hill then exchanged emails with Haitz requesting more information.
In one email, Hill expressed confusion as to whether Miller Farmer Law Firm would be replacing the district’s in-house counsel or be an addition to John Williams’ services.
He also asked Sirko whether a request for proposal (RFP) process would be needed. An RFP is a document that announces and describes a business project to solicit bids from qualified contractors.
Sirko ultimately agreed that morning to add the proposal to approve Miller Farmer Law Firm’s contract but expressed her concerns to Haitz.
“We used to have a partnership such as this with a local firm but replaced it with having an on-site attorney, as it is much more efficient and price-effective,” Sirko wrote to Haitz. “Most large districts do so for those reasons. We still reach out to other legal services, when needed, but having an in-house attorney has made a big difference in terms of cost and response time on issues. Just wanted you to know that.”
On the evening of Dec. 8, Carlson sent an email to Haitz, Sirko and Hill, stating that a RFP process isn’t necessary for Miller Farmer Law Firm because of district policies.
“First of all, should the Board wish to move forward in hiring our firm on the 14th, it is under no obligation to do any sort of RFP or competitive bidding process,” Carlson wrote. “The District’s policy … specifically exempts professional services from the formal competition requirement. Further, C.R.S. § 22-32-109(1)(b), in requiring Boards of Education to adopt policies regarding competitive building, also exempts professional services.”
Carlson sent an email to The Daily Sentinel on Friday containing the following passages:
“I do not believe that the Board violated the Open Meetings Law. At no time that I am aware of, outside of the regular meeting on December 14th, was there a meeting consisting of a quorum of the Board held for the purpose of discussing or undertaking a rule, regulation, ordinance, or formal action, as it relates to hiring our law firm.
“I did speak to President Haitz and Director (Angela) Lema at the CASB (Colorado Association of School Boards) conference in Colorado Springs and answered questions about our law firm.
“This is not atypical, as many law firms even have sponsored booths in the exhibit hall for the express purpose of meeting prospective clients. I also participated in a networking event that was attended by President Haitz, Director (Will) Jones, and Director Lema.
“President Haitz requested that I provide a proposal to the District for consideration by the Board. This was not a pre-negotiated contract; it was a standard engagement letter from our firm for the Mesa 51 Board of Education to consider.
“The Board discussed our proposal at length at the December 14th meeting and ultimately decided to table the agenda item to allow more time for the Board to consider options. These facts do not rise to the level of an Open Meetings Law violation — not even close.”
Carlson also touted the firm’s qualifications.
“Our law firm is uniquely qualified to represent Mesa 51. Unlike the District’s in-house counsel, our firm specializes in education law. Our senior partner has 20+ years of experience, and we collectively represent more than 65 educational entities in Colorado.
“Additionally, we are not a Colorado Springs law firm. Our attorneys are spread out across the state such that we can serve clients throughout Colorado.”
Carlson also said that a Colorado Springs school district was a “comparable client” to District 51.
“… with nearly the same number of students as Mesa 51 spent less on all legal costs last year than what Mesa is paying for in-house counsel alone.”
Lastly, Carlson said that the firm shares commonalities with District 51.
“We are interested in Mesa 51 because we share the values and priorities of the Board in terms of engaging and respecting the role of parents in the education of their children. Should the Board choose to hire us, we look forward to the opportunity to serve such a great school district.”
The approval of the contract was tabled for a future meeting, but for some in Mesa County, the immediate attempt to oust the district’s current in-house legal counsel, John Williams, for Miller Farmer Law Firm came across as brazen and lacking in transparency.
At Coffee with the Board on Dec. 18, both Haitz and Lema said that “a big pause button” has been pushed on attempting to hire the firm.
When asked if the district would be publicly taking bids from different firms — including local firms — should it seek new legal counsel, Lema said that it would.
This isn’t the first time a law firm operated by Brad Miller has been contacted in such a manner and raised questions about transparency.
Miller’s firm was hired in December of 2013 to represent the Jefferson County Board of Education.
Similar to what recently transpired for the District 51 board, two Jefferson County board members were not made aware about the contract until two days before the vote, both the Colorado Independent and Arvada Press reported at the time.
No job posting was ever listed by the school board, nor were there any public meetings about the move.
The first reporting of Jefferson County’s intentions came when Thompson District Board of Education President Bob Kerrigan was also set to hire Miller Sparks.
Kerrigan justified the move by saying Miller was the board attorney for Jefferson County — days before Jefferson County made its move to hire Miller’s firm known to the public and two of its five school board members.
This, too, was reported by the Colorado Independent.
That perceived lack of transparency ultimately cost the Jefferson County board members who negotiated Miller’s hiring their positions, as all three were recalled by voters, with the lack of transparency around the contract being cited by Jefferson County voters as one of the major factors.
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