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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.

Also, 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.

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.

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