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.

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.