Heated DPS meeting prompts video that looks like start of 2013 DPS elections

Last Thursday, Denver Public Schools Board President Mary Seawell and a majority of the DPS board meeting passed a controversial vote to colocate Strive HS (formerly West Denver Prep) at North High School.  Every vote relating to the colocation passed 4-3.

I watched part of the meeting online, and dozens of North parents and community members spoke out against the idea, while reform groups such as A+ came to speak in favor.  Contentious decisions aren’t anything new to DPS, but Mary Seawell, in her new role as President of the Board, responded by lashing out against the community members who came to speak.

At one point Board Member Jeannie Kaplan attempted to propose a compromise, but Seawell quickly cut off conversation.

This morning, a video is making its way around facebook and emails from members of the “Choose North Now” group, which looks a lot like the first volley of the 2013 DPS election cycle.  

If Seawell’s “Shame on you” speech and this response video are any indicator, 2013 is going to be a long, heated campaign that will make 2011 campaigns look downright friendly by comparison.

Has Andrea Merida Paid Back Her Overages Yet?

In September of last year, it was revealed that DPS Board Member Andrea Merida had charged over $12,000 of personal expenses – ranging from fast food to phone bills to flowers – to her district provided and taxpayer funded credit card.

Merida at first refused to pay back any of the $7,500 she spent beyond her $5,000 allotment before she begrudgingly agreed to reimburse the district.

Now, over 5 months later, the question remains: has Andrea Merida paid back her overages?

Merida claimed to have repaid the district in October and that her repayment was “rejected.” That claim was summarily dismissed by Board President Nate Easley and other DPS administrators.

Merida wasn’t pressed on the issue again until last month, when the Denver newspaper editorial board again asked that she make amends and repay DPS.

Instead of pledging to reimburse the taxpayers, Merida instead took issue with the paper’s observation of two recently-incurred charges for Netflix and Xbox Live.

The board member claimed that those charges were “fraudulent” and the credit card company agreed, reversing the transactions and crediting that money back to the district.

In defense of those fraudulent charges, Merida went on to say that:

Even though board policy does not require me to make any payments to the district, I am covering my own normally-allowed expenses and have brought spending down to zero.  By the time my first term is over, the district will have saved at least $15,400.  I do this because I respect the sacrifice the taxpayers of my district have made, though the record shows that past board members neither curbed their own spending nor improved the policy.  This board did, unanimously.  It is truly unfortunate that this situation has been spun for political gain, while our district buckles under the weight of risky investment schemes that drain millions in unbudgeted dollars from our classrooms.

It’s very admirable that Merida is covering her “normally-allowed expenses” and that she’s “brought spending down to zero.” Neither of those statements, however, answer the one question at the heart of this whole ordeal: has Merida paid the district back yet?

Merida is using very carefully crafted language to imply that she’s done everything required of her – and more – in an effort to be a transparent and responsive elected official. The district will have saved $15,400 by the end of her term, after all! Absent in all of Merida’s statements, of course, is the one stating that she’s fulfilled her September pledge to repay the school district.

If Merida is serious about putting this story behind her and if she’s tired of the “situation being spun for political purposes” then the solution is very simple: pay back her much-lambasted expenses and make an absolute statement communicating that those expenses have been paid in full.

Until Merida does both of those things, this issue will continue to linger and further pollute her term on the Board. She made a rather unequivocal pledge – after equivocating, of course – to repay the district and all she needs to do to put this entire issue behind her is make that repayment. Maybe she has repaid it. If that’s the case, then instead of writing about “respect for the sacrifices of the taxpayer” all she has to say is that she’s fulfilled her obligation.

Unless she does, however, all of her complaints about “political spin” look little less than political posturing.  

Brian Schweitzer Stumping for Sirota

DPS District 1 candidate Emily Sirota is no stranger to politics. Her husband David Sirota has a national profile in the progressive movement; besides hosting AM-760’s three hour morning block locally, Sirota’s pretty well-known to liberals across the country. Before he wrote mildly well-received books on populist rage, Sirota was also largely credited with getting Brian Schweitzer elected to the Montana Governorship in 2004.

Needless to say, Sirota and Schweitzer have a pretty friendly relationship. Case in point, this e-mail we received from the Sirota for Schools campaign:

Please join Denver Auditor Dennis Gallagher, Rep. Joe Miklosi & City Councilwoman Deb Ortega  at a fundraising dinner on October 13th at 6pm for School Board Candidate Emily Sirota featuring a keynote speech by

Montana Governor

Brian Schweitzer

Thursday, October 13th from 6pm-8pm at Beau Jo’s

2710 S. Colorado Blvd (Colorado & Yale)

This is a huge get for Sirota. It’s a testament to the relationship that Emily and her husband have with the governor, sure, but even then, this is a pretty big deal for a school board race. It’d be amazing for almost any race, but for the DPS School Board? It’s so big that it’s unheard of. The sitting Governor of Montana – and one of the most popular governors in America – is stumping and fundraising for a local election.

It’s this kind of event that will give Sirota an edge over opponent Anne Rowe. Sure, Rowe can make a big deal about “out-of-state” influence impacting the race, but that’s a moot point. This event is going to raise a ton of cash for Sirota and get her news coverage in the Denver newspaper and pretty much every evening broadcast on the 13th. We could even see it getting some national news. It’s a game changer.

Schweitzer’s endorsement and appearance also raises questions about the prescience of Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s endorsement of Anne Rowe over Sirota so early on. Normally, we’d say that the endorsement of the mayor of the city in which you’re running for school board is a pretty big deal. When you compare the endorsement of a four-month-old mayor with that of a twice-elected governor of national renown, though, Sirota’s the hands-down winner.

If we were Michael Hancock, we’d be questioning whether or not getting behind Anne Rowe was the savviest move. It’s certainly not a good idea for a western Democratic mayor to be on the opposite side of Brian Schweitzer. It’s definitely not something John Hickenlooper would do.

If anything, this is evidence that Hancock still needs to take it easy in the early days of his administration. He’s not a national figure, yet, as much as it seems that he’d like to be. And in a DPS proxy fight with someone like Schweitzer, it’s hard to see how Hancock could possibly come out on top.  

Hancock Endorses Happy Haynes

We’ll reluctantly refrain from using and abusing any puns on the candidate’s name for this post.  We’ll also be kicking off our coverage of all of the school board candidates and campaigns later this week.

That said, DPS School Board At-Large candidate Happy Haynes today announced a high-profile, if not unexpected, endorsement from Mayor Michael Hancock.

I grew up under some pretty difficult circumstances, and many, many people helped me along the way, including the educators at Denver Public Schools. They gave me every opportunity to triumph over adversity. They never gave up on me, and they taught me that if I worked hard in school and seized every chance I got, I would succeed.

The future leaders of our City are sitting in our classrooms today. We need to act now to ensure they get the best education possible because, for too many of Denver’s kids, this is their one and only shot at a better life.

That’s why Mary Louise and I wholeheartedly endorse Happy Haynes for the at-large seat on Denver Public Schools’ Board of Education. Happy will make every decision based on the answer to one overriding question: Is it best for kids?

Throughout my campaign for Mayor of this great city, I heard time and again that residents and businesses want our schools to improve. As the parents of two DPS students, Mary Louise and I want that too. Electing Happy Haynes is a strong step in the right direction.

Like me, Happy is a proud DPS graduate. She served on City Council for 13 years – for two years as Council President – and was the Mayor’s liaison to City Council and the DPS Assistant for Community Partnerships.  Happy has the experience and passion to lead our schools to better days.  But more than anything, she knows that our schools must improve if we are to provide the best path forward for our kids and for our City.  She has the knowledge and determination to achieve real results for Denver’s kids as a member of the School Board.

Happy was well, um…pleased to endorse Hancock in his bid for the Mayor’s office, and it’s only logical that he’s reciprocating. The two have been friends for years, and while we don’t think Happy’s race will be nearly as controversial or competitive as Hancock’s, an endorsement from the sitting Mayor of Denver will always go a long way. Remember, it was rumored that Haynes would be tapped to serve as Hancock’s chief-of-staff, so we think that Hancock will end up doing a lot more for her campaign than just sending a few e-mails.  

Happy to Have a Headquarters

Yes, we know that headline is a little trite, but we’re certainly not the first to have a little fun with the candidate’s name.

That point aside, former Denver City Councilwoman and 2011 School Board candidate Happy Haynes is having a grand opening of her headquarters tomorrow night, and you’re invited. Well, we assume that you’re invited.

From the Happy Haynes campaign:

Please Join Happy Haynes

Candidate for DPS School Board At-Large

For our Campaign Headquarters Grand Opening

Thursday, September 15th

6:00 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.

Campaign Headquarters

3215 E. Colfax Ave

Denver, CO

We’re sure the campaign would be happy to see you there. It’s also happy to accept your contributions if you can’t make it. We’re happy that these puns write themselves…sorry.

Andrea Merida’s Political Posturing

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.