Editor’s note: Mary Seawell is an at-large member of the Denver Board of Education.
In the wake of the Denver Post article exposing Andrea Merida for being paid by Andrew Romanoff while she actively criticized U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet from her position on the school board, I have struggled to understand the current state of the DPS Board of Education.
In many blog posts and discussions about the incident, I have heard and read, “The board isn’t committed enough to children. It should be about the kids!” But through this scandal and my seven months on the board, I’m realizing serving children is the board’s first priority, but it’s not our primary duty.
The children of Denver are absolutely the most important priority for every parent, teacher, principal, superintendent, food service worker, paraprofessional and board member. But our duties are very different.
A teacher’s duty is to do everything he or she can to effectively educate students.
Teachers also have non-professional duties, like providing for their families. It’s the union’s duty to make sure teachers are compensated fairly and recognized as professionals.
The superintendent ‘s duty is to make sure he runs the district in line with the school board’s policy and openly shares information so the board and public can evaluate the district.
The board’s duty is to create public trust in the system. We do that by making good policies putting kids first. We also do it by listening to communities and their values to make sure they will continue to support public education, both with their children in our schools and with their taxes. We must have high standards for financial transparency and fight to make sure the system itself is equitable and fair.
Finally, the public’s duty is to fund and support public education adequately so all children can receive the best education possible. (I will go off on that dereliction at another time.)
When Ms. Merida didn’t disclose her financial relationship with Romanoff, she violated the public’s trust. What makes this sad for me personally is that no one works harder on the board than Ms. Merida. She would have asked the same questions and demanded answers even without being paid. She is one of the strongest voices for transparency in the district, making her own lack of disclosure all the more bizarre.
My father, Buie Seawell, an ethics professor at the University of Denver, said it best in an email to me.
“In a time of distrust the transparency of public officials and public institutions is imperative. The most significant failing is that of lacking ‘straight forwardness’ . . . of exercising the virtue of transparent action. And it’s not a matter of not violating rules, it is rather a public duty, affirmative in nature. In an era of unprecedented cynicism and mistrust, anyone seeking and holding public office should know this.”
I hope Ms. Merida will acknowledge the seriousness of her actions and take responsibility.
Ms. Merida is not the only one of us to fail in our duty. Some of my board colleagues encourage the perception that our board is corrupt because a majority of the board disagrees with three of the members on multiple issues. On the other side, some of the members encourage the perception that our board is dysfunctional to the point that the only solution is to abolish school board elections and have members appointed by the mayor.
Both sides fail to see the damage they are doing to the public’s trust in the Board of Education.
School board elections encourage community participation in our schools. It’s a chance to talk about our priorities and vision for education. School boards are the most basic form of our democracy and for that reason, they are messy complicated bodies. What can make them work, regardless of ideology, is when members uphold their duty not just as individuals, but also to the collective of the board itself.
My sister, Scottie Seawell, who (along with my brother-in-law) is an expert in school board governance said:
“For the school board as a body to be effective in carrying out its collective duty the individual members must be able to trust one another to be forthright and straightforward as they discuss issues, formulate policy and make decisions — even if they know they disagree with each other and even if their actions result in split decisions. It is the duty of the board, as a body, to act for all to see, so that the public continues to trust in our system of government and support the system.”
To fulfill our duty, we have to work with each other even when we disagree or frankly don’t like each other. To fulfill our duty we have to reach out and talk to stakeholders, to be challenged and also to challenge back. To fulfill our duty we have to disclose conflicts of interest. To fulfill our duty we have to leave our politics at the door.
This gets to my own culpability. I have been a quiet, but open, Bennet supporter. I haven’t spoken publicly or stumped for him, except with friends and family. This weekend he came to my house to speak to friends and neighbors. I co-hosted an event in Stapleton. Finally, I gave his campaign $100. While that type of support or even more active support like Jeannie Kaplan (for Romanoff) or a designated volunteer role like Theresa Pena (for Bennet) is not the same as Ms. Merida’s, it is clearly impacting the public’s trust in the entire board.
It is completely normal and right for school board members to engage in elections. School board members cannot increase funding for public education, so you better believe we will campaign for the people who can. However, I didn’t fully appreciate how unique this specific primary election would be.
It calls for its own set of rules, because one of the candidates is the former superintendent. All of the school board members have access to information and a public forum that gives special and added weight to our endorsements. The odds of this scenario happening are very rare, but it is part of our duty and ethical responsibility to anticipate such conflicts.
As a group, this is where we collectively failed. As individual members, we all must do better. This is the one election we should have sat out.
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