Editor’s note: Mary Seawell is an at-large member of the Denver school board. She was elected in 2009.
It’s easy for outside observers to say the members of the DPS Board of Education need to get along and put the business of children first. The reality is there are times, like now, when matters escalate to a point where our duty becomes incredibly hard to do.
Finding out secondhand that three members of the board were invited to meet with the Colorado Lawyers Committee (CLC) to “discuss” the turnaround plan for Far Northeast (FNE) was one of those situations.
The reason the CLC meeting should have been noticed is because it is unclear the role CLC and some of my colleagues are playing in a rumored lawsuit against the district. Board members opposed to the FNE turnaround were invited to speak by the CLC. Meetings by invitation are by their very nature exclusive. From my first day on the board it was made clear to me never to meet with two or more board members on anything related to the district without making it public. All of this is to say that I believe the Colorado Open Meetings Law was violated.
The issue is whether the board members who violated the law should be censured. The answer is no. I don’t believe they should be censured because their actions, even if intentionally obfuscating, are reflective of a general lack of openness throughout the entire board right now.
The lack of transparency is an outgrowth of a lack of trust between the four of us who support the superintendent and the three who think the district is moving in the wrong direction. The way it manifests itself in each member is creating a board that is no longer effectively managing or overseeing the district. Essentially the finger pointing and secretiveness is creating an environment where there is little open discourse or critical thinking. Everyone is in constant battle mode trapped in our trenches not even bothering to see if we could stop firing to look for common ground.
So I’m putting down my own gun for a moment to talk about what a higher functioning board would look like. In the Far Northeast Proposal, the vote would likely be the same. The district would have the go ahead to do dramatic changes to Montbello High School, Rachel B. Noel, and the red rated elementary feeder schools. But the plan itself could look very different and be much better.
The first step would be for the majority to reach out to the minority. All of us would accept the plan had the necessary votes to pass. The discussion/debate would shift to how the plan could be modified so the outcomes have the highest likelihood of success.
To do this the majority would have to assume the minority wants the plan to succeed, too. The minority would then work diligently not to try and sabotage the process, but instead push hard to make sure the proposal succeeds. The issues would transition away from right and wrong to how to make it work.
There would be an open conversation about implementation, ongoing community engagement, student involvement, principal selection, instructional models, and teacher placement. The plan would be reflective of all of the voices at the table while still being a dramatic commitment to improving schools.
Instead four of us are serving on the board as offensive linemen creating a buffer around the superintendent so he can move the ball down the field. We are blocking the minority position for the simple reason that if we don’t block they will take the superintendent out. And believe me, in this current environment they absolutely would take him out. Any critical question around implementation on FNE will be seized by a critic as a sign not that the plan needs to be better but as ammunition on why to kill it.
The censure of Andrea Merida, Jeannie Kaplan and Arturo Jimenez is absolutely necessary in the battle of school board politics, except this isn’t a war or a football game. This is a democracy. And this is a failing democracy because instead of having the hard conversation PUBLICLY about implementation of the district’s plan in FNE, the board’s majority is rightfully afraid the other three will use the discussion to take down the entire plan.
If there had been more public discussion then people would see how much thought and deliberation has gone into the FNE plan. Since the time the plan was presented to the FNE committee, the district has listened to and integrated community and board concerns making the plan stronger and better. The original proposal had spots that were distressingly vague on how they would be implemented, especially with the district-run programs. The progress has been tremendous.
This is a strong proposal built from a good (not perfect) seven-month process, but the evolution is largely unseen because of the culture of distrust and fear that permeates the administration’s relationship with certain board members.
Trying to figure out and define who started the war is as futile as trying to use censure to end it. If this board is to come together it will take the administration and four board members acknowledging its solutions are not perfect.
On the other side, it will take three board members to stop hiding behind groups like DeFense and the CLC to do its dirty work and fight openly and constructively in the board room to improve outcomes for kids.
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