Battle over sex-ed course may not be over in Delta schools

People gather outside of the Delta County School District building to object to a comprehensive sexual education course, which the school board ultimately voted not to adopt. (Delta County Independent)

A Delta County watchdog group is demanding a “do-over” on a recent decision by the Delta County School Board regarding Comprehensive Human Sexuality Education (CHSE).

Delta County Citizen Report (DCCR) claims the district violated a number of Colorado Open Meeting Laws as well as its own promise to engage public input before making a final decision on CHSE curriculum in alignment with HB 19-1032.

The school board unanimously voted May 20 on a resolution that ended further discussion on CHSE while reaffirming that it will continue offering sex education that aligns with Colorado Academic Standards but does not expand its curriculum in line with HB 19-1032.

The comprehensive sex education bill, passed last year by Colorado Legislators, prohibits teaching that emphasizes sexual abstinence as the sole method of birth control and uses shame-based or stigmatizing language or gender stereotypes; or excludes the health needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender individuals. School districts have the freedom to choose whether to opt in or out of the bill’s mandates.

On Monday, an attorney representing DCCR sent a letter with notice of intent to sue the school district over four alleged Colorado Open Meetings law violations related to the district’s recent decision-making process, most notably around its May 20 meeting.

Leading up to the May school board meeting, DCCR alleges that the board failed to disclose the reason for two executive sessions held prior to the board’s decision which may have been related to CHSE.

Chris Mochulsky, attorney for DCCR, stated that two executive sessions to receive legal advice violated state law which requires an “announcement by the local public body to the public of the topic for discussion in the executive session.” DCCR wants the school board to be more clear on the specific legal question that was asked in the closed-door meetings.

The lack of transparency regarding the two executive sessions and other actions by the school board prompted DCCR to question when members made their decision on CHSE.

Following a protest and public comments by anti-CHSE groups during the April 15 school board meeting, district officials issued a statement on its Facebook page stating that it “has decided NOT to adopt a CHSE curriculum at this time.”

According to DCCR, the Facebook statement made on April 16 indicated that the board made its decision “outside of a public meeting and with no public input” prior to May 20 when the public vote “merely served to rubber stamp the decision made by the board in secret.”

There was mixed messaging in the social media statement as the board stated it would have the district’s attorney draft a “one-pager” explaining the district’s options and then share that information with the communities of Delta County.

“The Board would also like to survey the community in the next few months to determine if the School District should provide a standards aligned CHSE curriculum that aligns with House Bill 19-1032 and State standards. After the results are collected, School District leadership and the school Board will determine the next steps,” the statement read.

While groups on both sides of the issue waited for the attorney’s white paper and the community survey, The Learning Council began planning a “Pride Parade” to show support for the LGBT community and youth. The non-profit organization headquarter in Paonia asked for and received a permit from the City of Delta to have the street in front of the school district closed during the May 20 meeting.

Community members opposed to CHSE gathered early and placed their names on the sign-up sheet to speak against the measure. Participants on the street and inside the meeting were unaware that the school board would be taking a vote on CHSE following public comments as the agenda did not include the topic by name.

Moments before the meeting began Superintendent Caryn Gibson addressed audience members in the room telling them that the board would have a resolution addressing CHSE following the public comment section of the meeting.

In its complaint, DCCR claims the school board failed to give “full and timely notice,” to the public or provide “specific agenda information where possible” as required by law when it did not clearly state CHSE was on the May 20 agenda.

Counsel for DCCR stated that, “no ordinary member of the public would interpret either ‘School Board Statement’ or ‘Resolution 2021-15’ to mean either a statement on CHSE or a resolution on CHSE and despite knowing that they would be voting on a resolution regarding sex education, they did not put it on the agenda.”

School attorney David Skarka told the DCI in a phone interview just days after the board’s vote that adding a resolution with a number does not constitute a change in the agenda or the will of the board.

“Whether it says ‘resolution’ or it says ‘statement’ the substance doesn’t change. It’s still an official act of the board on a particular issue (requiring a vote),” said Skarka.

DCCR also claims the school board prematurely closed public comment during the meeting favoring comments from community members in opposition to CHSE.

“The board closed the May 20, 2021 meeting to the public and seemingly only hand-picked opponents of CHSE to sign in early and receive ‘tickets’ to participate at the meeting,” the attorney letter reads.

The school district faces further legal action from DCCR if it fails to remedy the alleged Open Meeting Laws within 14 days of being notified.

JoAnn Kalenak, DCCR director, said in fairness to the process her organization is demanding that the school board rescind Resolution 2021-15 and place the matter back on an upcoming meeting agenda with “full and timely notice to the public, including the topic of the resolution.”

DCCR is also requesting that the topics of the executive sessions held on May 6 and May 14, 2021 be available to the public as well as ensure an adequate public forum for the public to participate in a meeting regarding CHSE so that the meeting is open to the public.

Additionally, DCCR wants the Delta County School District to adopt an Open Meetings Law Resolution and adopt an official Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) policy. The school district voluntarily provided DCCR with emails related to the topic; however, on further review it was noted that several correspondences were missing.

One email letter obtained by DCCR indicated that the school board may have jumped the gun on CHSE due to pressure from conservative groups.

In an email response to a concerned citizen, school board member Linda Ewing wrote, “This curriculum has never been approved by any of us. There are people who would like this particular curriculum, but, as a Board, we are only researching as we should anything. There were just those who panicked, which has made us make decisions quicker than planned.”

The email obtained through a CORA request, is dated May 20, 2021 at 1:32 p.m., four and a half hours before school board members convened a regular meeting to hear constituent comments and conduct board business, according to the DCCR letter.

The DCI has contacted both the school board and district leadership with requests to comment on the DCCR letter. Neither had responded as of deadline.

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