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DPS board prepares new spending policy

Denver school board members Monday night tackled proposals to revamp the policy guiding the way they spend the $5,000 each is allotted annually for expenses related to their service to the district.

The guidelines shifted somewhat during the evening but, by the conclusion of the board work session, there was enough agreement that a new policy is expected to be voted on Thursday.

The issue of board members’ spending came to light in late August after an open-records request by Education News Colorado revealed that board member Andrea Merida had overspent her $5,000 allotment by $7,427 in the fiscal year ending June 31. Board member Arturo Jimenez had overspent by $1,153.

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At least $4,000 of Merida’s total was spent at restaurants and coffee shops, which she explained was part of her constituent outreach in southwest Denver.

Jimenez said he would repay his overspending and Merida, after initially saying that she would not do so, agreed she would as well. Neither has done so yet, according to board member Mary Seawell, the board’s treasurer.

Highlights of the new policy, as currently proposed, include the following:

  • Board members’ spending status and copies of their credit card statements will be posted online, on a quarterly basis, so the public can review them.
  • Board members will no longer be allowed to use their allocations to help out schools they represent, as some had done. But the board will examine establishing a separate fund for that purpose.
  • If an expense is contemplated by a board member that would exceed the $5,000 limit, permission must be sought from the board president or board treasurer.

The proposed policy, under allowable expenses, would permit expenses such as the food and beverages that Merida charged to the district in 2010-11. Under “allowable expenses,” the policy lists “meals … only if related to DPS business” as permissible, as well as conference-related travel, hotels, meals and transportation.

The new guidelines still forbid any expenditure related to political activities, including campaigning for any candidate. That is not a change from past policy.

Board members have complained they didn’t always know during the year where they stood in their cumulative spending. The new policy calls for them to receive quarterly statements showing their balance plus a notice on June 15, two weeks prior to the end of the fiscal year, reminding them to review their expenses.

The policy, if passed, will not be retroactive.

Merida expressed concern the policy could affect how she connects to those she serves.

“I don’t want people telling me how to engage with constituents,” said Merida, who is in her first term. “I think that should be at my discretion.”

Merida also briefly made a case that board members should not be expected to vote on the proposal on Thursday, saying, “I think we should put this off so we can flesh it out a little more.”

Board member Jeannie Kaplan did not call for a delay, but added, “This was our first chance to really talk about this, and I think this is a really important conversation. This is really the first time we did that, face-to-face.”

Seawell, the board treasurer, has been working to bring a new spending policy to a vote since mid-August, when board president Nate Easley first raised the issue by confessing that he was $843 over his limit. Later recalculations showed he was actually $202 under the spending cap.

“I really object to the idea of not passing a policy” this week, Seawell told her colleagues. “This has been out there. This has been a cloud hanging over this board. We need to resolve this.”

Seawell will make revisions to the policy to reflect Monday night’s discussion. Although a final version won’t be available for board members to review until later today, she asked if her colleagues would be prepared to vote on it Thursday.

“I feel great about voting on it,” Easley said.