DPS board approves new spending policy

Denver school board members unanimously approved a new policy Thursday night guiding the spending of the $5,000 annual allotment in tax dollars each receives to assist with their board work.

Meanwhile, new records obtained under the state’s open-records law show some members dramatically slowed their spending after Education News Colorado first reported two of the seven board members had exceeded their limits.

“This is something we really needed to address as a board, and we needed the board to have the public’s trust, and this will help instill confidence in the board,” said Mary Seawell, the board treasurer.

Most board members’ spending tapered to a trickle in September after EdNews reported Aug. 31 that board member Andrea Merida had gone over her $5,000 limit by $7,427 in fiscal year 2010-11 while board member Arturo Jimenez exceeded the cap by $1,153.

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Merida went from spending $1,643 in August to about $35 in September.

Only two board members’ monthly spending totals went up from August to September. Jimenez, who’d spent nothing in August, charged $47 to the district in September. Board president Nate Easley went from $716 in August to almost $1,500 in September, largely due his attendance at a conference in Washington, D.C.

Board members, who receive no salary, are permitted to use up to $5,000 in district money each fiscal year for expenses incurred in carrying out their work for DPS.

After Easley announced at an Aug. 18 board meeting that he had exceeded his limit, EdNews filed an open-records request on all board members’ accounts. Records revealed Easley actually hadn’t gone over his total but that Merida and Jimenez had. No other board member had used up their full $5,000.

More than $4,000 of the $12,427 in charges racked up Merida in 2010-11 was spent at restaurants and coffee shops. She said such charges were incurred through “community engagement.” Merida is midway through her first term representing southwest Denver.

Jimenez and Merida both said in September they would repay the district for their overages. Merida initially said she would not, then agreed to do so a couple days later.

Board members encouraged to repay “as promised”

Some question remained after Thursday night’s vote as to when Merida and Jimenez will pay back the previous year’s overages.

“Now that we have a policy that’s not retroactive, I plan to look at last year’s expenses in light of this one and determine if there’s anything I should pay back, and if there is, I will,” said Jimenez, who is campaigning for a second term representing northwest Denver.

Asked if he is challenging the district’s figure of $1,153 in overspending from 2010-11, he said, “I’m not sure what the figure would be, or what would be appropriate, so I think that now passing this policy now gives us a better guide – but no clear sense of what that amount is. And that amount kept changing. But I promise to look at it and work on it.”

Jimenez said he has pledged not to use his district credit card until last year’s account is resolved. He also called attention to his role in proposing an addition to the new policy, calling for members’ credit-card statements to be posted on the district website. That element was incorporated into the new policy.

Merida, moments after the vote was passed, issued a statement which read, in part, “I am glad that the confusion caused by the absence of a spending policy is now rectified…

“To further demonstrate my commitment to transparency to my community, I will be posting my expenses on my website so they can see for themselves how I support them with the resources their tax dollars have provided.”

Asked if she would be paying back any of her previous year’s overage, Merida, who is a free-lance web designer, followed with an email which stated, “I offered to, in the way I am able, and it was not accepted.”

Merida said she made the offer to Easley, who shortly before the meeting’s conclusion called for board members with overages to repay them “as they’ve promised to do.”

In an interview afterward, Easley said he had “no recollection” of Merida offering to repay the money.

“And let’s just say she did,” Easley said. “I’m not her boss. The people are her boss. She works for the people, she doesn’t work for me. So she should ask the people if she should pay it back.”

Noting that “$7,000 is a lot of money” to repay, Easley added, “I’m willing to work with her, and my colleagues on the board, to find out something that works.”

A+ Denver to board: “What you do sends a message to all of us”

Media attention on the board members’ spending sparked a review of the policy guiding their personal use of district money.

Many members – including board president Easley, whose responsibility it had been to sign off on his colleagues’ monthly credit card statements – confessed confusion about what was and was not permitted, and how they were even to know whether they were close to their limits.

Highlights of the new spending policy passed Thursday night include:

  • If an expense is considered allowable but it would put a board member over the annual allotment, permission for that expenditure must be sought from the board president and treasurer.
  • If an overage is discovered only after-the-fact, the board member must reimburse the district within 90 days of receiving notice of the overage.
  • The board treasurer will sign each member’s monthly statement and verify that supporting documentation is included; if the treasurer is not available, the board president will do so. Failure to produce receipts may result in a board member’s card being canceled.
  • Board members will receive notice of their cumulative spending total, showing their balance against the annual amount they’re allotted no less frequently than on a quarterly basis.

Merida’s spending has dropped off dramatically since she and her colleagues’ use of their district allocation came under scrutiny.

She spent $1,528 in July and $1,643 in August, a pace which if sustained would have put her at over $18,000 for 2011-12.

EdNews filed its first open-records request on board member spending Aug. 19 and published its findings Aug. 31. A second records request was submitted Sept. 15, seeking spending records for July and August, and a third request was filed Oct. 10 for spending in the month of September.

Merida incurred just $34.89 in new charges for the month of September. None of her money was spent on food or beverages.

Well after the vote was taken at Thursday’s meeting, A+ Denver executive director Van Schoales addressed the board during the public comment portion of the meeting. He called on board members, without naming names, to pay back not only their overages but “anything that wasn’t, for whatever reason, used to further district business.

“We know that we’re in tough times, we know the district is in tough times, and we need to save every penny,” Schoales added. “What you do sends a message to all of us.”

When Schoales concluded his remarks and left the speakers’ podium, board member Jeannie Kaplan said, “We voted on this already and we passed it … I’m highly offended.”

Recent spending by Denver school board members

EdNews Colorado obtained recent expense statements for Denver school board members after finding two board members exceeded their $5,000 annual limits in fiscal year 2010-11. The key finding: Spending dramatically slowed for most after an Aug. 31 story about overspending.

Nate Easley – northeast Denver

  • Easley did not exceed the $5,000 limit in fiscal year 2010-11
  • July spending – $159.50, August – $716.43, September – $1,461.41
  • Three-month total – $2,337.34
  • Credit-card statements for July/August and September
  • Notable – Easley, who brought the spending issue to light initially, easily led all board members in September spending, largely due to his travel to Washington, D.C., to participate in a Council for Opportunity in Education conference.

Bruce Hoyt – southeast Denver

  • Hoyt did not exceed the $5,000 limit in fiscal year 2010-11
  • July spending – $112.98, August – $500, September – 0
  • Three-month total – $612.98
  • Credit-card statement for July/August; Hoyt had no spending in September
  • Notable – After spending just $777 in all of 2010-11, the term-limited board member spent $500 in August, donating it to a DPS coaches’ association for prizes and awards.

Arturo Jimenez – northwest Denver

  • Jimenez exceeded the $5,000 limit in fiscal year 2010-11 by $1,153.29
  • July spending – $272.41, August – 0, September – $47.15
  • Three-month total – $319.56
  • Credit-card statements for July/August and September
  • Notable – Jimenez, who is campaigning for a second term, has not yet paid his overage from 2010-11 but spent only $47 in the past two months – a single visit to the Tamale Kitchen.

Jeannie Kaplan – central Denver

  • Kaplan did not exceed the $5,000 limit in fiscal year 2010-11
  • July spending – $167.61, August – $131, September – $104.66
  • Three-month total – $403.27
  • Credit-card statements for July/August and September
  • Notable – Most of Kaplan’s few expenditures in the current fiscal year have been at restaurants, topped by one $111.99 charge at the Pearl Street Grill in July.

Andrea Merida – southwest Denver

  • Merida exceeded the $5,000 limit in fiscal year 2010-11 by $7,427.87
  • July spending – $1,528.36, August – $1,643.47, September – $34.89
  • Three-month total – $3,206.72
  • Credit-card statements for July/August and September
  • Notable – After spending more than $480 on restaurants and coffee shops in August, expenditures she has classified as community outreach, Merida spent no money that way in September.

Theresa Peña – at-large

  • Peña did not exceed the $5,000 limit in fiscal year 2010-11
  • July spending – $4.75, August – $1,002.75, September – $44.24
  • Three-month total – $1,051.74
  • Credit-card statements for July/August and September
  • Notable – The term-limited board member spent $500 in August on a donation to the 2011 boys2MEN Life Skills workshop and another $500 as a donation for uniforms and to support school culture at P.R.E.P. Academy, an intensive pathways school for students struggling in traditional settings.

Mary Seawell – at-large

  • Seawell did not exceed the $5,000 limit in fiscal year 2010-11
  • July spending – $722.14, August – $168.96, September – $69.47
  • Three-month total – $960.57
  • Credit-card statements for July/August and September
  • Notable – The board treasurer, who has taken the lead in crafting a new spending policy, spent $63 on food and coffee in September.

*Recent spending for board members includes credit-card purchases as well as reimbursed purchases and donations and does not include interest or late fees.

Board member who overspent issues statement on new policy

Andrea Merida, who overspent her $5,000 limit in fiscal year 2010-11 by more than $7,000, sent this statement to the media after a new board spending policy was approved:

  • “I am glad that the confusion caused by the absence of a spending policy is now rectified. Although my offer to pay for some of my expenses was not authorized, I am glad we’ve passed this policy by a unanimous vote. To further demonstrate my commitment to transparency to my community, I will be posting my expenses on my website so they can see for themselves how I support them with the resources their tax dollars have provided.”
  • She added, “I am disappointed that the lack of clarity we inherited from previous boards has been turned into a campaign issue, and I am hopeful that this type of politically-motivated, manufactured discord will now be put to rest so we can focus on real issues like the burdensome debt our district is saddled with due to financial mismanagement, as well as on student achievement.”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.