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Transparency, ethics, duty: A board member’s view

Posted by Jul 26th, 2010.

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.

Popularity: 6% [?]

4 Responses to “Transparency, ethics, duty: A board member’s view”

  1. Mark Sass says:

    The public cannot expect board members to be apolitical-this would be foolish and, as you state, the board needs to actively engage in elections that impact the district. To be elected to the board it is expected that winning candidates have political connections. To expect board members to jettison these connections as the govern is unreasonable. I agree that transparency is very important, especially on a board that has been portrayed as very divisive. This is where I think Andrea failed in her responsibility to the community. She needed to be very clear not only about her support of Romanoff, but as to her paid position. You are very right to highlight the responsibility of the board to gain the trust of the community, and I am heartened to see your sincere reflection on the issue.

    I find it very interesting that the Post, who has been very critical of Merida, chose to publish her oped piece and then quickly run an article exposing her work for the Romanoff campaign. Did the Post have any inkling of her involvement with Romanoff before publishing the oped? Merida was wrong not to publicly state her paid position with Romanoff, but wasn’t Merida’s work with Romanoff public information? Where is the Post’s responsibility in all of this?

  2. Michelle Moss says:

    Given Merida’s track record of a complete lack of transparency and a penchant for political grandstanding with information distorted to make DPS look bad, it is difficult to believe anything she says. We will never know how much of what she has said over the past 8 months was real concern for the issues or a job interview and paid campaign speeches for her boss. Her credibility as a public official could not be lower. Equally as important, the ethics of the politician who hired her to do this come into question. As a career politician, the candidate should have known better and should not have paid for this unethical, inappropriate behavior

    Merida has not been transparent. Even as she was blasting Michael Bennet, Tom Boasberg and Theresa Pena for not being transparent, she was passing herself off as a public official instead of a hired gun.

    In the Post op-ed, Merida quotes Senator Bennet as saying, “It’s fundamental to who we are as Americans that the ZIP code you’re born into is not the place you end up if you work hard and behave responsibly.” Andrea attempts to discredit the Senator by labeling this quote callous. She argues that it somehow discredits Denver’s neighborhoods. The quote is one that is widely used by education reformers across the nation. It is the American dream to have our children prosper and in some way do better than we did. I, like Andrea have lived in Southwest Denver my whole life, but I continue to encourage my children to reach for higher dreams and to somehow make their mark on the world. That does not mean that I do not value my community.

    I still carry in my heart lessons taught to me by Scott Mendelsberg about his students at Lincoln High School. He taught me that we have to help our students not simply dream of a better life, but we have to help them achieve those dreams. When students know that they can through education do better for themselves and their families, education has meaning. No child should feel as if they do not have the ability to change their destiny. Education is about giving our students the tools and the motivation to make their mark so that they have a choice of where they work and live. There is nothing callous or disrespectful about helping children fulfill their dreams and aspirations.

    During my years on the board, I cannot think of anyone who fought harder for all the students in Denver than Michael Bennet and Theresa Pena. Michael worked tirelessly trying to shore up the systems in DPS that support our students. While I share the frustration of everyone concerning the data on achievement in DPS, I know that DPS is a much better school district as the result of Michael Bennet’s leadership. Nothing changes overnight, but many of the systems are in place that will make a difference in the long run. Theresa Pena has always been a strong advocate of our English Language learners and has been outspoken on the need for continued improvement in all our schools. Her leadership brought dignity and respect back to the Board of Education. To paint these two champions of education as callous and disrespectful shows a complete lack of understanding of Denver schools and the progress that has been made under their leadership. It also shows that Merida is more interested in slinging political mud than engaging in issues that really matter to DPS and finding solutions to improve the district

    Merida calls the failure to be upfront about her paid campaign position as “immaterial.” No big deal, she said, all board members have chosen sides. That’s an absolutely stunning failure to grasp one of the fundamental responsibilities of being a publicly elected board member. As an elected official, sides are chosen, absolutely. Yet in doing so, it’s their obligation to tell everyone if there’s any money coming their way for taking one side or the other. Unlike Merida, the other board members are volunteer supporters of their chosen candidate. Asking hard questions comes with the job. Creating distractions, being paid for and advancing your political agenda from your board seat only hurts the children of Denver.

  3. Melissa says:

    Ms. Seawell, you could not have expressed the community’s current feeling with the Board of Education. There is a sense of distrust and worry that the wrong people were voted into these positions. I commend the work Bennet and Pena have done and anyone who has actually worked in DPS as I have knows what a difference their leadership has made.

    I wish you the best as you work with such challenging individuals. Thank you for keeping kids at the center in a professional, respectful, and trusting manner.

    • Mary – Thanks for pointing out this unusual election situation… Thanks for making me check myself… My personal compass has been more off than usual this past year… just getting back to my old self these last few weeks!

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