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 [email protected] 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.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.