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From the editor: Politics trumps decency

Posted by Dec 1st, 2009.

“You are the only large urban district that I know of in this country that has a functioning school board. But you should not assume that the electoral system that has turned school boards in every other large urban system in the United States will continue to produce acceptable results from the standpoint of positive change in the schools.”

Former San Diego Supt. Alan Bersin, speaking in Denver April 1, 2009

Today, Alan Bersin sounds like a prophet. Denver’s school board is in trouble, its members riven by personal and political animosities so deep and tangled that it would have the makings of a farce, if it had any humor in it.

Listen: I grew up in Chicago during the era of  Mayor Richard J. Daley. I understand that politics ain’t beanbag. There’s endless jockeying for position and advantage. Elbows get thrown about with abandon.

Still, what happened at Monday night’s school board meeting goes beyond the pale. If this isn’t a rule of politics, it should be: Before you pull a nasty, mean-spirited, back-stabbing stunt, make sure something substantially beneficial will result, at least from your perspective.

What new school board member Andrea Merida did yesterday failed that test in spectacular fashion. And let’s name some more names. Political pros like consultant Steve Welchert and lawyer Mark Grueskin, along with incumbent board member Jeanne Kaplan were partners in Merida’s act of betrayal.

Apparently, they still think they may have the upper hand in judicial review. That remains to be seen.

You can read all the gory details in Nancy Mitchell’s story. You can watch a video of some of the lowlights on the EdNews blog. But here’s the bottom line. Acting on counsel from Grueskin and Welchert, Merida had herself sworn in to her new school board seat Monday morning, several hours before the official 7 p.m. swearing-in ceremony. Without question, the move was entirely legal.

The immediate effect was to bounce eight-year veteran Michelle Moss off the board before Monday’s meeting, when some big votes were scheduled. Neither Merida nor Kaplan – long Moss’s closest ally on the board – had the decency or courage to warn Moss in advance of what had transpired. So Moss, her hair still growing in after chemotherapy, was a picture of righteous indignation and fury when she was told the news as she walked onto the board dais.

Moss endorsed Merida to be her successor. She made calls on her behalf. She helped her get elected by the slimmest of margins – 116 votes.

So here’s where politics and competence enter the picture. If Merida and her henchpeople had reason to believe that her action would result in a changed outcome on key votes – most notably the Lake Middle School controversy – then they could make a plausible argument that politics is a rough business and sometimes collateral damage occurs.

Instead, Welchert told EdNews,  they acted on the belief that DPS attorney John Kechriotis would determine that all three new board members would have to be sworn in before the meeting. That might have altered the outcome of key votes.

Kechriotis disagreed. The other new board members were not sworn in before the votes. Now, Welchert told EdNews, they’re betting that a judicial review will find that if one board member was sworn in early, all three should have been. Kechriotis’ failure to do so may invalidate all votes taken Monday. Or so goes their reasoning. This may now be fought out in court, at taxpayer expense.

Merida and Co. didn’t bother to inform the two new board members of their scheme. Those new members, Nate Easley and Mary Seawell, told EdNews’ Mitchell that they knew nothing of Merida’s move until she entered the board room at 4 p.m. Monday.

If Merida had wanted a real shot at changing the outcome of any votes, she would have needed to persuade one of the other new board members to follow her lead, get sworn in early, and then vote her way. Or practice politics, and try some old-fashioned persuasion.

Apparently she did no such thing. And so her move looks like nothing more than a selfishly motivated act; a four-year-old ripping open her Christmas presents on December 23.

So, what we’re left with is anger and animosity that has transcended policy disagreements and gotten personal. The new board’s first order of business has to be an effort to mend fences, using an outside mediator – perhaps a mental health professional.

It saddens me that people on the other side of this issue will downplay what happened Monday night as just part of the political game. They will point to the fact that Easley’s ascendancy to the presidency was a similarly slick move rife with betrayal of erstwhile ally Kaplan, who coveted the presidency.

Fair enough. But Easley manned up and told Kaplan and others of his intentions well ahead of time. And Kaplan is still on the board, and so lives to fight another day.

A longtime observer of Denver schools told me last night that “the last eight years have been a policy story. DPS has now turned into a political story. And moms, dads and kids will suffer as a result.” He’s right.

I’ll leave the last word to Michelle Moss. Speaking of Kaplan and Merida, she said: “These guys make cancer look easy.”

Popularity: 3% [?]

7 Responses to “From the editor: Politics trumps decency”

  1. Joshua Cole says:

    Mr. Gottlieb,
    I like your creativity in thinking what to do in the future to assuage this problem, and I like that you are thinking ahead in a positive way rather than drawing the lines as our national political world has seemed to change our brains to think in such a dialectic way.

    I haven’t paid attention closely to politics for very long, but I keep getting amazed (as well as frustrated and amused) that elected officials use “It’s what the voters want” as their answer for more and more things.

    In this case, how is it the will of southwest Denver voters to want to help out their northwest Denver neighbors? There were only two southwest Denver-direct issues that were on the agenda: renewing Southwest Early College’s charter for three years (approved unanimously in the consent agenda); and approving Multiple Pathways, an alternate high school with the first campus to be located in southwest Denver (passed 5-2, with Merida and Jimenez opposing). Merida said that she disapproved of Multiple Pathways because the disappearing students in southwest, the “dropouts,” are just numbers, and nobody is certain why they aren’t in DPS. That could be legitimate — most may be opting into Mullen, Denver Lutheran or Jeffco public schools — although it’s also against Merida’s predecessor’s “Field of Dreams” belief that “if you build it, they will come,” a la Kunsmiller.

    Also, the voters didn’t overwhelmingly want Merida to take that kind of stand. Merida won by 1.06 percent of the vote, again by southwest Denver voters. Ms. Seawell was approved 70-30 percent from all across Denver.

    The “voters” or “constituents” in Denver are being heard–with their feet and signatures. Half of kids near Lake are opting somewhere else, and more than 200 fifth graders want to go to West Denver Prep if it were offered. In southwest Denver, they’re leaving at a higher clip than anywhere else (the “dropout” rate as the district labeled it on its map).

    Speaking of politics in education and what politicians say, I want to relay a Brian Regan sequence, paraphrased:
    Have you ever watched politicians on television? Isn’t it amazing how they evade questions.
    “I’m not taking any more questions today.”
    And all the reporters are like, “What about — wait, that’s a question. Whoooaaa.”
    I wish I knew that when I was in school. My teacher: “Brian, what’s the capital of Uruguay?”
    “I’m not taking any more questions today.”
    Or politicians do this: “Let me answer that by asking you this.”
    And all the reporters are like, “Whoooaaaa.”
    How about you just answer it by answering the question.
    I wish I knew that in school. Teacher: “Brian, what’s 7 times 6.”
    Me: “Let me answer that by asking you this: How much wood…could a wood chuck chuck… if a wood chuck could chuck wood?”

  2. Scott Yates says:

    Alan,

    The thing I don’t understand is this: Why would the administration schedule a somewhat substantial vote at the very last moments of the term of three board members?

    If it was important, it should have been done long before, even if it had to schedule a special meeting.

    If it was important and controversial, it should have been scheduled a couple of months from now so the new members could have been fully briefed.

    By scheduling the vote the way it did, the administration essentially said to the newly elected members that the vote of the people should not count for anything. One of those members reacted in what I think was an understandable, if regrettable, manner given that her authority was being questioned before she could even be seated.

    I don’ t know her at all, and don’t know anything about the issues, but she may have just been trying to make a statement to the administration that she was elected and that very fact should be respected.

    While you justifiably attack her for her style, I think she may have a valid point to make about the way that the DPS administration is not following the will of the voters after a fair election.

  3. Alan Gottlieb says:

    Scott,

    Thanks for your comment. It is so refreshing to get a rational, well-argued response in the midst of what has become a super-heated and often irrational dogfight. And you didn’t even attack anyone!

  4. Scott Yates says:

    Hey, I’m happy to attack anyone!

    But this seems more like a case of where the administration just didn’t have the ability to predict the natural, if regrettable, reactions of at least one new board member.

    They should hire me or someone who hasn’t been working in education to do some strategic consulting. They need someone to perform a kind of sniff test on their plans.

    This whole episode is the kind of thing that happens when you have an echo-chamber inside an administration.

  5. Scott Yates says:

    Jeesh. No sooner do I write the above comment that I see they hired a marriage counselor and they are headed off for a cozy retreat at a place where they put chocolates on the pillows.

    And they are getting snickers all over the place.

    As they should.

    More proof that they need to hire someone who is able to tell them, “If you do this thing, here’s the horrible reaction you will get. Now, can let’s talk about what we can do so that you won’t get that reaction.”

  6. SaveLakeIB says:

    Bring back Sarah Hughes!

  7. Chris Takagi says:

    “A learning experience is one of those things that says, ‘You know that thing you just did? Don’t do that.’”

    Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
    (available for a tiny fraction of the cost of a marriage counselor)

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