DPS votes legal, attorney says

StockDPSLogo102609A Denver Public Schools attorney has issued a legal opinion declaring votes cast during Monday’s combative board meeting valid and describing an effort to delay the decisions as a “political ploy.”

John Kechriotis said cases cited in a letter by newly elected board member Andrea Merida’s attorney, who questioned the board’s authority to act Monday, are “completely inapplicable.”

“My only reasonable conclusion is that Mr. Grueskin’s letter … was not intended as a true legal opinion to Ms. Merida,” Kechriotis wrote. “Rather, such misinterpretation and misrepresentation of the Achenbach and Uzzell case holdings without reference to the controlling Colorado law on this issue was intended as a political prop.”

School board members, meanwhile, prepared for a morning session Thursday with a Denver therapist in an effort to improve battered relations between members and with Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

“I think that we need somebody outside, somebody neutral, to guide the conversation so it doesn’t degenerate into finger-pointing and ickiness, for lack of a better word,” said board member Jeanne Kaplan, who proposed the idea several weeks ago.

Then, emotions among board members were high as a result of an election in which some board members backed the opponents of other members. Monday’s dramatic meeting didn’t help the tension.

That’s when Merida stunned many by declining to wait until after the meeting to be sworn into office as scheduled. Instead, she took her oath before noon so that she could vote on a contentious reform plan at Lake Middle School in northwest Denver.

The result was an angry confrontation between Merida and board member Michelle Moss, who helped elect Merida and who walked into the 4:30 p.m. meeting expecting to vote in the last meeting of her eight-year term.

Disagreement on “lame ducks”

Grueskin and Kechriotis agree that Merida’s action was legal. While new board members have traditionally been sworn in together at an appointed time, state statute allowed Merida to take the oath anytime after last month’s election results were certified Nov. 19.

But they disagree on whether a board that includes outgoing or “lame duck” members should cast votes while new members wait to be sworn in. Merida and two other new members – Mary Seawell and Nate Easley – were slated to take their oaths of office at 7 p.m. Monday.

“What if lame duck senators and representatives, on the first day of a legislative session, held hearings and voted on bills, making their successors wait for hours to get sworn in and begin fulfilling their duties? ” Grueskin said Tuesday in response to Kechriotis’ opinion.

“I’m not aware of public entities that operate that way or courts that have endorsed that scenario,” he said. “Typically, there’s no artificial delay in administering the oath of office to newly elected officials.”

Grueskin cited two Colorado cases – one involving county commissioners from 1906 and one involving the Brush school board from 1971 – in his letter to Merida to support his position.

In particular, he says the school board case, titled Achenbach v. School District No. RE-2, shows an “old board” cannot act on policy matters during its “lame duck” period.

Kechriotis said the newly elected Easley and Seawell could have done what Merida did and been sworn in earlier as board members. Instead, they waited until after the meeting.

As for Achenbach, he said the case dealt not with the election of some new board members but with the complete elimination of a school district, and its board, under the School District Reorganization Act of 1957.

‘A complete waste of time’

“That school district literally ceased to exist as of June 30, 1965 and it is within that context that the Court references the ‘lame duck’ period of time,” Kechriotis wrote in his opinion.

Similarly, the 1906 case dealt with the elimination of a county, he said, and “here there is no elimination … the District No. 1 in the City and County of Denver continues in existence.”

School board member Arturo Jimenez sought a delay in Monday’s meeting based on Grueskin’s letter, dated the same day, citing concerns that votes cast might be rendered invalid.

“It may be that it has no effect,” Jimenez said during Monday’s meeting. “It may be that somebody wants to go to court and make an issue out of it.”

But Kechriotis said the “misinterpretation” of the cases led him to believe it was “a political prop” intended to delay board votes on the controversial reform proposal, which ultimately passed 4-3.

“The drafting of a legal memorandum in response to such a transparent political ploy has been a complete waste of time and taxpayer money,” he wrote, “time and money which should have been utilized toward advancing student achievement.”

For his part, Grueskin, a prominent Denver attorney and a registered lobbyist for the Colorado Education Association and other unions, declined to say who was paying his bill.

“I don’t address that publicly during my representation of any client, including those who I represent on a pro bono basis,” he said.

Merida could not be reached for comment Tuesday. As of Oct. 30, the most recent campaign finance deadline, 79 percent of the contributions to her campaign came from unions, largely the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.

She and other board members will meet Thursday at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, where the Colorado Association of School Boards is having its annual conference.

Conflict resolution for board

Their day begins with a closed-door session with therapist Susan Heitler, who specializes in conflict resolution and marital counseling. The group meeting will cost $2,400 to be paid out of the board’s budget, according to DPS communications director Mike Vaughn.

Vaughn said the meeting is a personnel matter focused on how board members and Boasberg can have a strong working relationship so it can be legally closed to the public.

Kaplan, who frequently touts transparency, said privacy is needed in this case.

“We’re trying to build trust and given the things that have happened, I think that trust has to be built at this particular moment just among ourselves,” she said.

At least some, if not all, board members have met individually with Heitler prior to Thursday’s session.

“I have to be honest with you, I’m not a real fan of going to counseling,” said Easley, who was elected board president on Monday. “I pictured the person sitting in a chair and I’m lying on a couch, telling her what my mom did to me – which would be hard to connect with my experience as a board meeting.”

But he said, “after my meeting, I came out on Cloud 9, really invigorated, thinking this is someone I would love to help me through this healing.”

Both Kaplan and Easley said they are optimistic the board can come together.

“My own philosophy is, hey guys, I need you, we need each other, so how can we do this as a team – realizing we’re not always going to agree?” Easley said. “There’s not a person on this board who’s not doing what they think is right.”

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at or 303-478-4573.

Click here to read attorney Mark Grueskin’s letter to Andrea Merida.

Click here to read DPS attorney John Kechriotis’ response to the legal issues raised by Grueskin.

Click here to read the Achenbach v. School District No. RE-2 decision cited in Grueskin’s letter and DPS’ response.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede