It’s no secret that, if forced to choose sides, my sympathies in the Denver education reform battle would lie with Superintendent Tom Boasberg and the four school board members who usually support his initiatives.
But I’m not an unqualified supporter. I wonder about Denver Public Schools’ ability to implement its grand plans, including the overhaul of schools in Far Northeast Denver to be voted on Thursday night. I am critical of the district’s unwillingness to fully uphold its end of the bargain with innovation schools. DPS loosens the purse-strings and the regulatory stranglehold reluctantly if at all, even as the Denver Classroom Teachers Association has been forced to make contract concessions for those schools.
Still, I believe the district’s intentions and strategies are sound. Not everyone agrees, though. Three members of the school board vigorously oppose many of the districts sweeping plans. Opposition and debate are healthy. Board members need to be skeptical and ask tough questions.
Over the years I have watch some board members get co-opted by successive administrations and become little more than appendages of the superintendent. This is unhealthy behavior.
There’s a pressing question, though, about the current dissenters on the school board. Are they loyal opposition, which we sorely need, or are they something less healthy?
Some of their recent actions make this a legitimate question. Earlier this month, the three board members, Andrea Merida, Jeanne Kaplan and Arturo Jimenez met with a subcommittee of the Colorado Lawyers Committee about district turnaround plans, which they vigorously oppose.
Depending on whose lawyer you choose to believe, this either was or wasn’t a violation of the state’s open meeting law. Despite the three members’ protestations that they did not know who else would be at the meeting, it seems clear they could and should have known better.
It has led to an ill-conceived bid by board President Nate Easley to censure the three board members, a bid that now seems certain to fail.
Meanwhile, board member Merida has played a key role in creating DeFENSE (Democrats for Excellent Neighborhood School Education), an organization that to date has expended most of its effort opposing Boasberg’s initiatives (oh, and bashing “Waiting for Superman.”) Merida has been somewhat coy about her leading role, deflecting questions and going on the counteroffensive against people who question her (as in this video, posted by The Denver Post’s Jeremy Meyer).
But in DeFENSE’s early days, Merida’s cell phone number was listed at the bottom of the page as a point of contact. Emails to the site at one point appeared to funnel through the andreamerida.com domain.
Some might not agree but I think it’s acceptable for a school board member to belong to such an organization. It shows questionable judgment, but I see no major ethical issues. Being one of its leaders, however – acting as midwife if not mother – is another matter.
In any event, why not be transparent?
Rather than reflexively heaping all the criticism on the three board members in question, though, it makes sense to try to understand their point of view. They have some legitimate gripes, they have reasons to feel frustrated and devalued, and they aren’t the only ones who deserve criticism for the disintegration of the Denver school board.
Put yourselves in their shoes for a few minutes, even if you disagree with all their positions. If you can’t bring yourself to do this, then you may be part of the problem.
So imagine: You’re on the losing side of 4-3 votes on a lot of key policy issues. You feel shut out of decision-making. It seems that whenever you ask the district for information what you get back is incomplete, misleading or both. You suspect that other board members and the district leadership are cutting deals to which you are not privy.
You believe to the core of your being that the district is heading down the wrong path. From where you sit, DPS is planning to open a slew of new schools and overhaul existing schools without thinking through how all the dislocation could hurt kids and damage families and communities you were elected to represent. As far as you’re concerned, the district looks in the mirror and instead of facing its own failures decides to scapegoat teachers.
So what do you do? How do you use leverage to make the 3-4 vote dynamic work to your advantage?
You stage a guerilla campaign. You hope to wear the other side down with multiple assaults from different angles. That’s what has been happening in DPS over the past year or so. If you were in their position, wouldn’t you employ some of the same tactics?
Unfortunately as in all guerilla campaigns there has been collateral damage, primarily to the board’s once sterling reputation.
What’s most troubling about the devolution of the Denver school board is that while on the surface disagreements center on policy issues affecting schoolchildren and their families, underlying much of it are deepening personal animosities among some board members, and between the dissident faction and Boasberg and his top deputies.
Everyone deserves a share of the blame for this. Hiring a marriage counselor didn’t work, but some disinterested grown-up needs to step in and persuade these people to get serious about working together.
So, let me offer some unsolicited advice to both sides.
Censuring board members Merida, Kaplan and Jimenez might provide a few minutes of delectable schadenfreude, but what else does it accomplish? Let it go.
Launching premature recall campaigns (against Merida) and threatening to recall other board members (notably Easley) consumes people’s attention and energy and ratchets up the animosity. Save it for when there is an issue that merits the nuclear option. Just drop it.
It has gotten personal on both sides of the divide. The dissident faction has not forgiven rookie board member Easley for pulling a slick move and acing out Kaplan to become board president. Well, as Finley Peter Dunne said, politics ain’t beanbag. This isn’t a high school election, folks, and we shouldn’t be forming cliques and nursing grudges. Get over it.
Everyone in education prattles on about it being “all about the kids.” The side you’re on is always all about the kids, while the other side fixates on “adult issues.” Unfortunately, at the moment the only kids this is about are the adults on both sides who persist in acting like children.
So, note to board members, administrators, teachers, advocates and community members on both sides of the issue: Grow up!
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