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Gotcha politics and a 4-3 board

Posted by Nov 16th, 2010.

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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18 Responses to “Gotcha politics and a 4-3 board”

  1. van schoales says:

    A brave and thoughtful response to the landscape of petty politics focused on adult interests. it’s time to focus on the kids, too much is at stake now.

  2. Michael Donahue says:

    Mary,

    Thank you for representing. It would be difficult for me to imagine your DPS BOD peers not being impressed. I would also anticipate that they move on your proposal. Thank you for having the conversation be in an open space. Thank you for taking a stand by seizing the opportunity to declare your “no” to censure, thus reducing it to nothing more then threats, from any direction.

    The only issue I have with your letter, and it is no matter or consequence, just a practice of mine, is that you mention lack of transparency is related to lack of trust. I always urge people to attempt to refrain from that notion as much as possible. I would urge you to consider what we call, “reckless persistence,” defined by actions demonstrating points of view have not changed while life has, as well as assume the source of low coordination for a group to be conflicting objectives shared throughout the group, rather than individuals in conflict with each other.

    “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.” (MS)

    Thank you for demonstrating this practice by your letter, as well as producing a natural activity of the group once the obvious, ‘life has changed” is apparent.

    “To do this the majority would have to assume the minority wants the plan to succeed, too. . . ” (MS)

    I would urge the BOD so called majority, (at least in regards to FNE), as well as the so called minority to not assume anything! I would urge the entire BOD to declare their intention, direction and personal stand is to be/have the plan succeed.

    ” 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.” (MS)

    And by honoring divergent points of view, focused on a single activity, and the championing of the minority voice by the majority, (A capable role for Mr. Easley), you have the makings of a very creative, imaginative and fulfilling process, best described as collaboration & cooperation, let alone mature and potentially fact based. (Ironically, just what many in the private sector are looking for in HS graduates)

    Ahhhh not right and wrong, good and bad. . .just conversation for what will work and what will not work and likely a sense of inclusion and accomplishment.

    Thanks again. . .glad you are there.

  3. Ed Augden says:

    Mary Seawell’s comments appear to be sincere and she is advocating more transparency and an attempt at building trust. That’s a hard sell in view of the fact that Nate Easley abused his authority as board president by publicly announcing his intention to seek censure before even notifying any other member of the board. A real leader would have contacted those he believed had violated the open meetings law. Instead, he chose to try Andrea Merida, Arturo Jiminez and Jeannie Kaplan in the Denver Post that has shown open bias and hostility toward all three. Nevertheless, I wish Ms. Seawell well as she tries to repair the damage wrought by Mr. Easley. I would point out to her that a major reason for opposition to Boasberg’s plan for northeast Denver is that the same strategy failed in northwest Denver. By any measure, the “redesign” of North High School was a disaster for students, teachers, parents and the community. Yet, instead of learning from that failure, Boasberg is forging ahead, ignoring the opposition and, in the process, likely violating the constitutional rights of students to an equal and uniform education. The district still hasn’t acknowledged the existence of the 2006 Harvard Civil Rights Study Project, “Denver Public Schools: Re-segregation, Latino Style,” that revealed increased segregation and isolation of Latino students. That report should be analyzed prior to planning and implementing any plan anywhere in the district. Perhaps, Ms. Seawell would lead that discussion and analysis. She definitely has the leadership skills to do that and to develop a protocol for board members attendance at open meetings.

  4. Chris Leding says:

    Mary, a very thoughtful piece … with the bigger picture in mind.

  5. Christopher Scott says:

    Nice piece of writing Mary. Taken in tandem with Alan’s Post, “Let’s all grow up,” it would sound like the powers that be are starting to understand where Jeannie and Andrea stand with DPS politics. If that were the case, however, no one would vote for the far NE Denver plan on Thursday.

    All any board member should need to know about the far NE Denver plan is that 77% of the far NE Denver community who were asked if DPS’ plan would improve their schools said no, and the majority of them said the plan would make their schools worse. That should be enough to get the board to say, we need to go back to drawing board.

    But not in DPS. Four of you will vote for the plan, three will not. The chasm between the majority and the minority will grow, and DPS will suffer the consequences.

    However, you can be the bridge builder, Mary. Start by getting Easley out of the president’s chair.

    Easley has done irreparable harm to his ability to govern through this latest farce around censuring members of the Board who attended the CLC meeting. His lack of coordination of the issue with his fellow board members is embarrassing. It speaks to his inability to lead or be an effective governor of DPS.

    Easley is loathed by all three of the board members in the minority. Fundamentally, he has allowed Boasberg to run a hate campaign in the press against Jeannie Kaplan and Andrea Merida, using the Denver Post as his weapon of choice, with Ed News as his backup. Easley ruined any good will he had remaining with Arturo Jimenez last night. These board members will never forgive him.

    When we look at effective governance, it is important to understand that both sides of an issue need to collaborate around the one thing everyone can agree to: we want to help Denver’s kids. That collaboration has to be built on trust, and trust can no longer happen under Easley’s presidency. The minority of this board will never trust Easley again after this past week.

    Take our relationship as an example of trust, Mary. We were “political adversaries,” but we both care a lot about education and the power of education to transform kids’ lives. We collaborate all the time, despite the fact that we frequently disagree. But we come to the table with mutual respect and looking for ways to compromise. I trust that about you. I know I will not always get what I want when we interact, but I always know we will do our best to find a win/win solution when we work together. This approach is utterly absent from the DPS school board.

    So the question is, Mary, how can you build bridges with both the minority and the majority of this baord? The first place to start is by getting Easley out the president’s chair and then working on a compromise president that can, for the next year, work to find a way to start mending fences. Then real reform can begin, a reform built on trust that allows compromise and collaboration. That’s the receipt for success.

    • Mary Seawell says:

      Christopher,

      You have a very close up view of the board because of your relationship with Jeannie, but there are truths you refuse to see. There is no stronger advocate for public education on this board than Nate Easley. I can’t imagine this last year without his leadership and friendship.

      Last week I stood by him as he spoke to students at Montbello High School. It was a tough afternoon and incredibly emotional for the students and board members present. Nate opened himself to their anxiety and fear and was absolutely present with them. He didn’t try to manipulate them or mislead them to accept anything. He gave every student packed into the room his cell phone number. No one on this board cares more about that school or those students than Nate. You may disagree with him, but I promise you he is putting himself on the line for each one of them.

      The FNE meeting you mentioned is the same meeting where you distributed signs saying, Say No! You can say no from your vantage point, but as board members we cannot.

      In your latest Huffington Post entry you made the comment that in two years I will have to answer if the FNE turnarounds don’t work. You better believe it. But more important than my hypothetical future school board reelection is what happens if I do nothing. If I do nothing in the three years before I can run again, there will be three classes of 10th graders where 95% will not be proficient in Math. There will be three more classes with almost 90% not proficient in Writing.

      Christopher, you are a writer. Doesn’t it matter to you what we are allowing to happen? Over 1,700 students in Montbello are leaving the school because they don’t think it will educate them. In three years if we do nothing how many students will get sick of riding the bus to get to East or GW or CEC and just give up? How can you hold up a sign saying “No” to changing that?

      After the meeting with the Montbello students, a sophomore came up to me. She was mad and asked how I could judge the students in her school as failing. She told me she had dropped out but reenrolled, and she was going to graduate from Montbello. She was a Warrior. And trust me, this girl will graduate whether or not Montbello changes. But I asked her if she had friends who dropped out and weren’t coming back. Her shoulders slumped forward, her body language changed. Her voice softened and looking down at her feet, she quietly said, “yes.” I asked her if she thought I should support the proposed plan for them. She looked into my eyes and said, “Yes.”

      Here’s my challenge to you. If this proposal passes on Thursday spend as much time working to make it succeed as you have on trying to convince people it will fail. I wish I could give a guarantee everything is going to go smoothly, but that would be a load of crap. This is going to be hard relentless work. My vote is just the beginning of my obligation to FNE. And we’ll see after Thursday night who is actually there for those kids. I guarantee you one of them will be Nate Easley and one of them will be me.

      • I appreciate the depth of your emotion, Mary, but I’m concerned about your acceptance of a false choice. The decision you’re making tonight isn’t between accepting the DPS plan and doing nothing at all– you can also act to support meaningful transformation. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o–IDmqPpd0

        How recently have you visited the schools in the FNE to learn more about them?

        • van schoales says:

          The data doesn’t suggest that Oakland has had meaningful transformation (what does that mean? and how long is is supposed to take?). Most of the Oakland kids can’t read on top of the fact that they are getting worse relative to other DPS and CO schools. This is hardly an example of best practice based on any of the data that I’ve reviewed.

          • Sigh.

            That Data is dated. You’re looking at the numbers from the past few years, when this school was forced to work under an unethical & inept leader who had already run another school (Mitchell) into the ground. (Again, I ask: Where is DPS’ accountability for that? And of you, Van, I ask: Consider ALL of the information, not just numbers gathered under duress prior to the advent of new developments!)

            At the very end of last year when that leader finally stepped aside, they began a huge, bottom-up transformation process that is beginning to show positive results. They’re being denied the chance to show what they can do. That’s all I was saying.

          • Also, you don’t know “most Oakland kids” from a hole in the wall. I worked with many of those students every day. Stop trying to speak with authority about people you’ve never even attempted to know or understand. There were those who truly struggled with reading, and those who were decent readers, but struggled with performing on (or didn’t care about!) reading assessments.

            Data like these ask questions, they don’t answer them. If we’re going to use these assessments, they should be a jumping off point for further examination of a problem, not treated like the be all and end all of understanding education. There is a reason why we’re overhauling the assessment system in this state– these assessments are woefully inadequate for the purposes we’re trying to use them.

  6. Lynn Hawthorne says:

    Mary,
    I wonder if the board would be more successful if it could move to a policy governance model. As a DPS staff member, I appreciate of the board’s theory of action and the goals it has endorsed for the district. The vision for student growth and achievement is clear and something we can all stand behind. But when board members take stands for or against the superintendent’s plan for the FNE, they step into a micro-management role. In a policy governance model, the board defines the ends to be achieved and set limitations on how the ways the staff can reach those ends to ensure prudence and ethics. Then, they allow their executive officer to go about the business of achieving results. It might benefit the board to consider the monthly monitoring reports the Brighton superintendent provides his board. He is clearly accountable but has flexibility to manage the complexity of running a school district without worrying about sabotage from rogue board members.

  7. Scottie Seawell says:

    Great post Mary. I appreciate all the comments too, as all are very thoughtful and important to consider as you all work to move DPS and in this case FNE toward a stregthened community working toward better outcomes for all children.

  8. gerald keefe says:

    What a fantastic article and it appears that “common sense” is not dead after all. Good luck to Mary and the DPS board.

  9. Eric Sondermann says:

    What a brave, thoughtful, mature post, Mary. And ditto for your reply to Christopher Scott on this thread. You are seeking and finding the right balance here – on the one hand, standing up without compromise for the urgent needs of kids being left behind in failed settings; yet on the other hand, doing your best to do this with a tone of disagreeing when necessary with the board minority without being chronically disagreeable or needlessly antagonistic. It would be great if others – particularly those on the other side of the divide – would grab the olive branch. Keep up this pursuit. I’m proud to have you as one of my School Board representatives.

  10. Jill Conrad says:

    Very proud of this post and of you, Mary, and very glad that you are showing the kind of leadership I knew you would as the At Large member of the Board. Thank you for speaking up. I am saddened to see the level of divisiveness that has developed on the board, but hopeful that your clear vision, unwavering commitment to do what’s best to get better outcomes for Denver students, and push for better dialogue and transparency will help things stay sane and on-track. Keep it up, Mary!!

  11. Joanne Roll says:

    I have watched “reform” and the self selected. self-identified “community” destroy school after school in DPS over the last twenty five years. Based on that experience, I have two questions for you, Mary.

    1) Why has Montebello had nine principals in the last eleven years?

    2) Why was the Superintendent not reprimanded when he referred to one of the “minority” board members as “disgruntled”?

  12. Kathy Hansen says:

    “If there had been more public discussion then people would see…”

    To me, this was the salient thought overall.
    Mysteries in the administration and decision-making functions at DPS have existed for years. This has given rise to a perception on the part of the public that there are things it is not being allowed to see because corruption is occurring. (By using that word, I am not suggesting overt theft or deliberate misdirection of resources but rather acts such as good-ol-boy cronyism, staff additions to accommodate “personal” needs of under-performing workers, and various other symptoms of administrative dysfunction.)
    After analyzing the issue for years, I concluded the “mischief” was largely the result of the very factor over which the censure was considered: the mixing of private lawyers into public political/social matters which require free discourse. This in turn places the focus on limiting the liability of the participants or taking advantage of perceived legal exposure.
    If private counsel are allowed to direct from “behind the curtain” acts which were instead to have been made by elected officials and their own designees, this cuts the vital tie between the voters and those officials, so that eventually public entities are run by private attorneys making $$$$$, instead of the volunteer boards envisioned under the constitution.
    My other comments would be:
    1. When DPS stopped approving board minutes for nearly a year’s time (several years ago), I asked the Denver District Ct to dissolve it as a corporation (what I really wanted was for the district to notice that somebody might complain to a court). There was no statutory “punishment” for failure to abide by the requirement to maintain minutes, so the board simply stopped doing so. The statutes can only be effective if there is a remedy for the “so what?” position, in other words.
    2. There are very limited causes of action which could form the basis for a “lawsuit against DPS.” It is immune under state law for tort claims, has no contract with consumers (parents or children) to provide any particular educational experience or result, and the state constitution has already been satisfied by the district’s making a building with teachers inside available for kids to enter. From what I can see, this leaves solely a potential federal constitutional claim, and while my own case was remanded by the Ct of Appeals on that basis, I wouldn’t want to risk a defense attorney-fee award by counting on obtaining a similar result in a subsequent proceeding — or recommend that litigants incur the grey hairs and other symptoms of PTSD that I did in that lengthy endeavor.
    3. I was told by many attys in the course of this terrible experience that DPS private attys “never settle a claim” but instead excruciatingly litigate all claims through the final appellate level, while opposing parties and their attorneys suffer for years upon years. This is a financial and emotional expense the district can bear which private litigants cannot, and the exact same thing is true for the ability to satisfy an award of defense fees if a claim should eventually fail.
    It was a dim day when I wrote to DPS counsel in response to a “settlement offer” midway through appeal, that my affirmative claims be withdrawn based upon DPS’ willingness to relinquish its claim for fees. I wrote, “I don’t want to play ‘Deal or No Deal’ with the constitution and would prefer to await a ruling” but in my heart and in my body to this very day, I was shaken to the core that an attempt to analyze constitutional or statutory text relative to one of my own governmental agencies could put my real, live children on the street wearing nothing but their pajamas — or that any public entity would put us through that torturous experience without ONCE agreeing to informally discuss or even meet about, much less resolve, the actual issues raised.
    I think the phrase is “Good Faith.” If people are wrong, so be it. If people are right and the district is embarrassed, so be it. But the secrecy — the mystery — the whole Wizard of Oz charade — isn’t working out for Denver kids, and doesn’t seem to be the brainchild of Board members elected into office either.
    Hmmm…who was it said, “First, kill the lawyers”?

  13. Buie Seawell says:

    In today’s political environment civility is neither naïve nor superfluous. Indeed it is the highest end of education in a democracy. But tragically civility is the first casualty of the furtive games of the Machiavellian politics of our age. How we can educate for an open, respectful and civil society, when elected officials of our education system itself do not act with the straightforwardness required of their office? Of course change is needed at all levels of public education, but the most needed change is at the top, in how our schools are governed. Openness, respect, directness, trust sound naïve, but in fact such virtues are the soul of good education. Is it too much to ask that the Denver School Board tried practicing what our finest educators are trying teach?

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