Most elected officials will tell you that one of the most thankless, unforgiving positions in local politics is a seat on the school board. It’s logical, really, that it’s a hard job; unlike other offices, school board positions deal directly with the issues affecting the children of their constituents. Parents are understandably protective of their kids in the education realm; they’ll as vigorously attack a school board member as a bully on the playground in the defense of their child.
A school board seat isn’t exactly the type of position you can easily use as a stepping stone, either. Sure, you can make incredible connections, but it’s even easier to amass a sizable list of opponents. That’s why it takes a special kind of person to serve on school boards, especially in Denver Public Schools. They have to be the kind of person who’d actually want to serve on a school board; sometimes you get amazing advocates for public schools, and sometimes you get entry-level politicians a little too proud of their title.
Cue Andrea Merida, southwest Denver’s district two director. Merida is a controversial figure in all of Denver politics; she’s picked numerous high-profile fights, including a few with other board members. We’re not here to discuss whether or not Merida has been a positive or negative influence on the direction of Denver’s schools; that’s a debate best left to Denver’s parents and her constituents.
What we will say, however, is that we continue to be shocked by Merida’s lack of political instinct. From her very first second on the board, Merida has been a constant source of controversy due in large part to some incredibly poor political posturing.
Let’s start at the beginning, really. On the day of her swearing in, Merida secured a court order enabling her to take her seat on the board just hours before she would’ve been sworn in as scheduled. She did so to vote against iconic reforms at Lake Middle School, and though we’re sure she had her reasons, the move defined her as a member. In taking her seat early, Merida swiftly and dramatically ended the tenure of her predecessor, Michelle Moss, without giving Moss the opportunity to say farewell or reflect on her past eight years on the board. Alan Gotlieb, the usually mild-mannered editor of the renowned Education News Colorado, compared the move to “a four-year-old ripping open her Christmas presents on December 23.” In this space, we noted that “Andrea Merida couldn’t have been more inappropriate and disrespectful if she had showed up in a ‘Fuck Denver’ t-shirt.” The measure that Merida grabbed the headlines to vote against ended up passing, and thus began Merida’s rather unique habit of posturing for posturing’s sake.
We thought that would be the end of Merida’s awful judgment. Newly elected officials sometimes have problems adapting to their new roles, which is what we expected out of Merida. The political theatre on her first day as a board member had the potential to be one slip-up, albeit an offensive one, in an otherwise distinguished career on the DPS Board.
Then came the bitter primary campaign fought between Michael Bennet and Andrew Romanoff. Merida was already busy attacking many of the reforms Bennet had instituted during his tenure as DPS Superintendent. Of course, Merida was well within her right to attack these reforms; she was elected to serve on the Denver School Board, and so it’s only logical that she focus her attention on much of the public policy put forward by Bennet and his successor, Tom Boasberg. Her continued attacks on Bennet did turn the school board into a “proxy battlefield” on which the primary was fought, but even that could be spun as a normal part of the political process.
It seemed normal enough, but out came revelations that Merida was being paid by the Romanoff campaign at the same time she was slamming Michael Bennet on his education policies. Yep, Merida was a paid staffer on the campaign of the candidate trying to bring down the former head of Denver Public Schools while at the same time politicizing the DPS board’s policymaking in ways that directly sought to benefit the campaign she was employed by. It’s a dumb move not only for a school board member but for anybody in any elected position. Imagine if one of any of the not-inconsiderable number of state legislators supporting Romanoff took to the floor of the House or Senate and waxed on about how bad Michael Bennet is under the guise of education funding. Those in the Legislature had the sensibility, at least, to keep primary politics out of the policymaking zeitgeist.
The very fact that Merida acted as an elected mouthpiece for Andrew Romanoff raised questions about her political judgment. What’s worse, and what raised questions about her ability to serve, was that Merida never thought it necessary to disclose her employment with the Romanoff campaign. It’s one of the first lessons you should learn in politics; if you’re doing anything else even remotely political, and you’re being paid for it, you need to disclose it. Not only is it an ethical issue, it’s common sense. Instead, Merida’s lack of understanding of even the most basic political nuances made her look not merely ill-informed, it made her look corrupt and complicit in a cover-up. For the second time in less than a year, Merida’s piss-poor political acumen lessened her ability to govern effectively.
Now, just 13 months after her second stupidly high-profile mistake, we’re questioning Merida’s political talent for the third time in as many years. Merida and four other board members exceeded their $5,000 annual allotment as provided by the board and Denver taxpayers. The fact that so many members went over that limit speaks lengths about the need for DPS to more strictly define the rules surrounding this limit, as well as pay attention to who is spending what and where.
Of course, it’s a different story for Merida than her peers. Board President Nate Easely, for example, went over his allotment by just $462.84, not insignificant and certainly not ignorable, but certainly within reason for a system in which allotments are not tracked carefully. Arturo Jimenez went over by a whopping $1,623.95. Merida managed, as always, to blow those records out of the water and make herself the center of the story.
The district two board member spent over $12,500, more than $7,500 above her limit. First and foremost, we have to ask, has Merida ever managed a checkbook? We get it, we do: there’s a certain vagueness in the accounting process for this money. But to overspend by more than double when you know your limit is five grand? Merida says that she wasn’t explicitly aware of that limit in part because she missed her orientation as a new board member by demanding to be sworn in early.
It’s almost humorous that Merida never stopped for a moment to look at her finances, especially in an age where you can check and crosscheck your spending habits via web platforms and smart phone applications. What’s not funny is what Merida ended up spending those thousands of dollars on. Her credit card statements for that discretionary account list $4,000 spent at restaurants, equalling about $11 in meals a day. Merida spent hundreds of dollars in restaurants that aren’t even in Denver; she dropped over $120, for example, for chinese food in Lakewood. She also spent over $100 in “community meetings” held at trendy restaurants in Lakewood’s Belmar area. Why a community meeting is taking place outside of her district is beyond us; not only did Merida have the gall to spend money on expensive meals, she didn’t even have the courtesy to spend that money in Denver. Indeed, the board member chalked up much of this restaurant spending to “community meetings” and “constituent outreach,” which doesn’t explain several five to seven dollar charges at places like Burger King and McDonald’s. How many constituents can you feed with five bucks of junk food? Actually, how many constituents would even agree to eat at McDonald’s as part of a community meeting? It doesn’t add up; Merida clearly spent a lot of this money on one constituent alone: Andrea Merida.
Junk food aside, Merida spent money on things that even reckless college kids wouldn’t put on their parents’ credit line. She was billed about $15 every month by Audible.com as part of a gold subscription to their audiobook service. She spent over $450 on books from Barnes and Nobles. Merida also blew a whopping $2000 on her cellphone service. We’re not sure what kind of calling plan Merida is on, but we think it’s a little curious to be paying two grand for a cellphone plan for one person. Merida also went on a digital shopping spree; she spent $200 on a digital camera and $205 on a new telephone from T-Mobile. She wasted $60 on a Vimeo Plus account on which she’s uploaded just 8 videos, including one from a campaign fundraiser. We find it a little surprising that a free YouTube account wasn’t enough for Merida, but we find it downright appalling that she can rationalize paying taxpayer money for something featuring campaign media.
$60 on flowers for Jeannie Kaplan’s birthday? Check. Hundreds of dollars on parking spots for her car? Check. Hundreds of dollars for car rentals and taxis? Paradoxically, that’s on there too. Merida also made her constituents shell out for in-flight wifi and “incidental charges” at luxury hotels in Washington, DC. While in DC, Merida lavished hundreds of dollars on transportation to and from airports; apparently, public transit was just too cheap to be paid for by the people of Denver. The list goes on and on.
True to form, Merida was originally unapologetic for her actions. “I don’t intend to pay anything back because these are all legitimate community engagement kinds of things, and there is a lot of professional development lumped into that,” Merida told Education News Colorado on Tuesday. Just like the controversies surrounding her swearing in and the Romanoff campaign, Merida in no way admits fault, instead shifting the blame elsewhere and making one of the stupidest political mistakes we’ve ever seen: keeping a gigantic amount of taxpayer money when her peers had the common sense to return it. It’s unbelievable, even shocking, that Merida couldn’t put two and two together and realize that her constituents and the city-at-large would want want that money back amid record budget cuts from public schools.
Yesterday, Merida came to her senses, sort of. In an uncharacteristically submissive blog post, Merida agrees to pay back her overage. Unfortunately for Merida, there’s no way she doesn’t come out of this looking like a bad guy. Instead of agreeing off the bat to pay the money that she admits to having spent, like all of her colleagues did, Merida first had to mull over the political implications while drowning in the gallons of ink written about her at news outlets across the state. This makes her eventually responsible decision to pay the city what she owes look overtly political; once more, it frames Merida as an obliviously hotheaded elected official whose mouth runs miles ahead of her brain and who pays more attention to news headlines than the good of her constituents.
Merida’s lucky that her only punishment is bad press. In all reality, her expenditures are much closer to theft than they are to a simple mistake. Merida can be as defiant as she’d like; she’s incredibly fortunate there isn’t a criminal investigation over this. We simply can’t see how any single person could justify so many expenditures that are clearly personal in nature without at least taking some of the blame.
Long story short, folks, Andrea Merida, love her or hate her, has made several crippling political mistakes that have impacted her ability to serve effectively on the Denver School Board. Merida’s track record has prohibited her from being able to point to much of the good she has done on the school board; instead of a laundry list of accomplishments, Merida instead lays claim to a list of complaints remarkably long even for a school board member. Not only has Merida shot down any chances of having any future political career, she’s also probably seriously wounded her eventual re-election plans. Hell, Merida will be lucky if she isn’t recalled or forced to resign over the spending issue alone.
We can’t say we feel sorry for Merida, though. The bad-blood surrounding her is her fault and hers alone. What’s particularly insufferable is that she’ll begrudgingly admit to doing these inexcusable things, but she can’t swallow her pride enough to understand why what she’s done is wrong.
We’re often asked why voters are cynical about politics, even at state and local levels. We don’t think we need to look much further than Andrea Merida.