Colorado

Jimenez: “I have never overspent”

Denver Public Schools board member Arturo Jimenez has notified district officials that he has no intention – contrary to prior comments he has made – to repay the $1,153 by which they say he overspent his personal account last year.

Arturo Jimenez, center, talks with supporters at his election results watch party Nov. 1.

In an e-mail distributed on Wednesday and obtained on Friday by Education News Colorado through a request under the Colorado Open Records Act, Jimenez refers to public discussion of board members’ spending as “ridiculousness, initiated and exaggerated during the most recent campaign season.”

And, he states, “I never incurred any expenses that were not related to my work on the Board. In addition, I have never ‘overspent,’ under Board practice as it existed prior to the new policy clarification.

“Just to clarify once and for all, I will not be ‘paying back’ any expenses to DPS. In fact, much of the expenses that I charged to the DPS Board credit card were expenses that should have properly been charged to other departments in the district.”

Jimenez could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

The seven DPS board members are permitted to charge up to $5,000 per fiscal year for expenses related to their service to the district. Spending by board members came under scrutiny last year when then-board president Nate Easley confessed at the conclusion of the Aug. 18 board meeting that he believed he had overspent his account by $843, and was writing a check to reimburse the district by that amount.

A subsequent EdNews investigation showed that two board members, Jimenez and Andrea Merida, had both exceeded their limits. Merida’s overage far exceeded that of Jimenez; records showed she had overspent by $7,427, with at least $4,000 of her total going to restaurants and coffee shops. She has defended those expenses as “the cost of community engagement.”

Jimenez initially raised questions about the district’s accounting after the tallies for his overage changed, from $1,623 over down to the $1,153, but said, “If there are overages, I will pay them back.” Merida at first said she would not pay the overage, then quickly reversed herself, before ultimately claiming she had attempted to repay the district, but that Easley had rebuffed her offer – which Easley has denied.

Easley, whose public comments on the issue had triggered the controversy, was ultimately found through recalculations by the district to be under the $5,000 limit by the amount of $202.

In the wake of publicity concerning board member spending, the board passed a new policy Oct. 20 clarifying the way board members’ $5,000 can be spent, how it is to be reported and providing that their spending be posted online quarterly. The policy is not retroactive to the 2010-11 fiscal year, and does not mandate that overages from that year be repaid.

Seawell authored a guest commentary Wednesday in The Denver Post, highlighting the new policy. In the piece, she stated, “It is important to note the Board of Education did not exceed the budget for total board spending last fiscal year.

“The combined amount budgeted for member spending was $35,000 … and the board as a whole came under the amount,” she wrote. “For this reason and because the new policy is not retroactive, no board member is required to repay expenses incurred doing legitimate board business.”

Jimenez wrote to Seawell on Wednesday, copying the board office, Superintendent Tom Boasberg and district legal counsel John Kechriotis, thanking Seawell for “all of the clarification” provided by Seawell’s Post commentary.

“It should have been done earlier in your presidency to avoid repeated embarrassment to the entire district,” he wrote. “Altogether, it is a pleasant surprise that we agree and unpleasant to have to read it online.”

Seawell, at the time that the spending controversy erupted, was the board’s treasurer and in that role she took the lead in fashioning the new spending policy. An at-large representative in her first term on the board, she was elected Nov. 17 by her colleagues to serve as the board president.

In his letter to Seawell and the district, Jimenez also states that he has not signed an authorization to receive a new district credit card and that he is “not sure” he will do so “until you can assure me that procedures are in place so that ‘others,’ and they know who they are, will not be allowed to utilize our board expenditures for political fuel.’’

Jimenez won election to his second four-year term serving northwest Denver in November, holding off challenger Jennifer Draper Carson by a 142-vote margin. His spending did not become an issue in the campaign.

Merida told EdNews in early December that “I am now covering all my own expenses,” including those the board policy stipulates are eligible for reimbursement. Referring to the previous year’s overspending, she said, “that’s how I’m making it right.”

Seawell declined comment on Jimenez’s email.

“My goal was to let people know this board is moving forward together,” she said of her Post commentary. “I don’t think commenting on the specifics of his email is helpful for our relationship or for the board as a whole. ”

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

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