Merida to repay, Easley within budget

Editor’s note – This story has been updated to reflect new figures released this week by Denver Public Schools showing board president Nate Easley and treasurer Mary Seawell did not go over budget.

Denver school board member Andrea Merida now says she will pay back some of the thousands of dollars she overspent on her school district credit card, after insisting earlier that she would not, according to a post on her personal blog.

Logo for Denver Public SchoolsAlso, Denver Public Schools officials are re-examining the 2010-11 spending records of every board member after at-large board member and treasurer Mary Seawell provided financial records that officials said confirm she was under the $5,000 annual spending allotment for each board member.

Previous calculations by the district showed Seawell to be $452.56 above the limit, which would have made her one of four board members to exceed their individual budgets. The latest revised figures from district officials show Seawell is $369.35 under the $5,000 cap and that board president Nate Easley also is under the limit by $202.17.

Earlier district figures put Easley at $463 over his budget and he had reimbursed the district.

Seawell said DPS is conducting a line-by-line audit of every member’s fiscal year 2010-11 expenditures, to determine, with finality, who spent how much.

“That’s great,” said board member Arturo Jimenez.

Additional information

Records released by the district showed Jimenez $1,623.95 over the limit, a figure later amended to be $1,153.29 over the cap. Jimenez, like Seawell, questioned the accuracy of those figures.

“I could tell, from just the general ledger that you guys have, that many of those charges are very inaccurate and it’s quite clear that many of them are,” said Jimenez, the District 5 or northwest Denver representative, who is seeking re-election Nov. 1.

“And we’re going to go ever every statement, and look at everything with a fine-tooth comb, and make sure where people are at. There’s a lot of vagueness in all of that information.”

Merida, who the district showed as having spent well over double her allotted $5,000, wrote on her blog:

“Just a quick note to tell you that I’ve decided to pay back what I overspent from our board allotment. I want to be very clear, however, that I did not personally benefit from any of the expenses. There is no personal enrichment here, only spending to outreach to you and to become a better board member.”

Education News Colorado first reported that, based on documents obtained through an open records request, Merida had spent $12,637.62, putting her more than $7,600 over her limit. The latest figures put her at $7,427.87 over the $5,000 cap.

Merida’s statement also said, “The board president and I will go over what that amount actually is, since there’s still a lot of confusion about what should be part of the allotment and what is ‘traditionally’ covered as a function of our duties.

“Once we get the accounting straightened out, I will know what the amount is and will work to pay it back, however painful. It’s only right.”

On her district-issued Visa Classic card alone, Merida racked up more than $4,000 in expenditures at fast food franchises, restaurants and coffee shops, which she said were all constituent meetings required as part of her constituent outreach.

She  initially told EdNews,  “I don’t intend to pay anything back because these are all legitimate community engagement kinds of things, and there is a lot of professional development lumped into that.”

But the other board members initially found to be over the limit all said they would pay back any overages.

Jimenez and Seawell both said they would repay the district, if recalculations by DPS still showed them to be over their limits. Seawell now apparently won’t need to do so.

After the initial figures showed her overspending, Seawell said she went over her records closely, looking at her figures for reimbursement on general supplies, mileage, hotel and phone expenses, plus the amount in which the district had ultimately reimbursed her for those costs.

In each category, she found that the amounts in her own records – documented by receipts, phone records and her bank statement – differed from those reflected in a district-generated spreadsheet.

The main factor resulting in Seawell’s bottom-line amount being adjusted is that $538.01 in phone expenses – which should not have been assessed against her total – had been mislabeled as “general” expenses.

As for what caused the board budget confusion, and how it will be prevented in the future, Seawell said, “There are multiple failure points and if any of them had been working correctly, this would not have happened. We are responsible for tracking our own expenses but we have to have good information to help us do that. And if we didn’t have that information, it’s still our responsibility.”

In addition to each board member taking responsibility, Seawell said, board members have to be regularly given information about where there accounts stand, and “there needs to be a system of checks and balances to make sure that all the information that is put in, is correct. Those are three things that need to happen to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

New 2010-11 board member spending totals

School board member – 2010-11 total spending – Over/Under $5,000 limit

Nate Easley – $4,797.83 – <$202.17>

Bruce Hoyt – $777.88 – <$4,222.12>

Arturo Jimenez – $6,153.29 – $1,153.29

Jeannie Kaplan – $1,863.12 – <$3,136.88>

Andrea Merida – $12,427.87 – $7,427.87

Theresa Peña – $3,879.66 – <$1,120.34>

Mary Seawell – $4,630.65 – <$369.35>

Source: DPS Communications office.

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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”