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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.

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