Colorado

Tighter board spending rules proposed

The Denver school board took no action Thursday night on the subject of individual board member spending, although a new policy to guide their use of district money is beginning to take shape.

Board member and treasurer Mary Seawell offered a draft of new guidelines, but her colleagues requested more time to review it – and propose any changes necessary – before voting on it.

Education News Colorado reported last month, based on documents obtained under the open-records law, that several board members had spent more than the $5,000 each was allotted during the 2010-11 fiscal year. Subsequent adjustments by the district to board members’ end-of-year figures showed that only two of the seven  – Andrea Merida and Arturo Jimenez – had gone over the limit.

Neither has yet reimbursed the district.

Seawell completed her draft of the new policy just a few hours prior to the start of Thursday’s meeting. Its greatest difference from prior policy lies in its clarity about what is permitted, what is not, and what is to happen when and if a board member goes over his or her limit.

It also clearly establishes the board president’s authority on questioned expenses, stating that it is each board member’s responsibility “to seek clarification from the Board President around any expense to verify whether it is an allowable expense.”

Highlights of the proposed policy include:

Allowable expenses:

  • Routine expenses related to board business, including driving mileage, meals for board members and those that are related to board business, telephone calls, travel to conferences, and other “documented, related costs.”
  • Non-routine and/or non-budgeted expenditures that are pre-approved by the board president.

Non-allowable expenses:

  • Expenses related to political activities including campaigning for oneself, for a member or candidate for school board or any other elected office, against a school board candidate or any other elected office.
  • Expenses related to political events or events sponsored by political organizations unless there is some professional development purpose.
  • Significant other and guest costs will not be reimbursed by the district unless the significant other or guests are required to be in attendance.

Receipts, explanations required under proposed policy

The new policy outlines far more rigorous reporting requirements. All requests for reimbursement must be accompanied not only by receipts but by brief explanations as to what the expense was for, and why the expense is allowable under the policy.

Credit card statements are to be approved and signed off on by the board treasurer – in the past it has been the board president who did so – and board members will receive quarterly statements advising them where they stand, in relation to the spending of their annual allotment.

Under the new policy, if a board member overspends, he or she can pay back the overage, seek approval by the board to cover that overage, or a combination of the two.

Also, if a board member has remaining years on his or her term, a request can be made of the board president for permission to apply that overage to a subsequent year’s allotment. If an expense is ruled impermissible, it must be repaid before the end of the board member’s term.

The most recent numbers released by DPS showed that District 2 (southwest Denver) representative Merida had spent $12,427 – close to $7,500 over the permitted limit. An analysis of expenses charged to her district credit card showed that more than $4,000 of her total was spent at restaurants and coffee shops.

Merida initially said that she did not intend to repay the district and all her expenses were legitimately incurred through constituent outreach. Later, she said she would repay her overage.

The second board member who exceeded his limit was District 5 (northwest Denver) representative Jimenez, who spent $6,153. Jimenez, the one board member up for re-election Nov. 1, has said he will also repay the district for his overspending.

As of Thursday evening, however, neither Merida nor Jimenez had done so, according to DPS spokesman Mike Vaughn.

Merida silent, Jimenez: ‘Checkbook in hand’

“I’m not going to have any further comment on that,” Merida said, when asked during a break in the meeting about when she plans to repay the district. She also remained silent during the brief discussion of the new policy.

Jimenez, during the meeting, expressed confusion about the policy that was in place during the past fiscal year.

“I have had my checkbook with me, in hand, for quite a while here, waiting for some clarity to our current policy,” said Jimenez.

“It would be great to hear what is that current policy; that would let me know whether I need to write a check.”

Board President Nate Easley, who represents District 4 (northeast Denver), had first raised the board member spending when he said at the Aug. 18 meeting that he had discovered he over-spent by $843. Subsequent recalculations by Easley and the district show that he actually came in $202 under budget.

Collectively, the board finished the fiscal year about $470 under the $35,000 allotted for the members’ individual spending.

Record heat prompts school calendar talk

In other business, board members had a prolonged discussion on the issue of the extreme heat suffered by students and teachers in several district schools during August’s heat wave.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he is open to re-examining the pros and cons of starting the academic year after Labor Day.

Merida had drafted a resolution instructing Boasberg to present recommendations no later than December for a post-Labor Day start date to the school year – effective in 2012. A vote on that resolution was postponed, however, so that other board members have an opportunity to suggest amendments to it.

“The reality is that when we have a school year in which we had at least two students who had to go to the hospital, and one paraprofessional that had to go to the hospital due to heat-related illness, it presents a greater urgency for us to be talking about the start of the school year,” said Merida.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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