When school board members in Colorado’s largest districts campaign for more money for Jeffco and Denver schools, they’re facing some unlikely opponents – their own school board colleagues.
In both districts, sitting board members are publicly opposing the tax proposals for more building and operating dollars for schools.
Jefferson County school board member Laura Boggs cast the lone dissenting vote in the board’s 4-1 decision in June to ask voters for a $99 million bond issue and a $39 million increase in operating dollars.
This week, Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson spoke before the Wheat Ridge Optimists’ Club to explain the district’s tax proposals; Boggs appeared to speak against them.
Next month, Boggs will present the “con” arguments in a pro/con debate on the tax proposals while board president Lesley Dahlkemper presents the “pro” side.
“I think it’s disappointing, I think it’s hugely disappointing,” said Dahlkemper, who was interviewed Wednesday evening as she zipped between events supporting ballot questions 3A and 3B.
Dahlkemper said Boggs’ activity is “in direct violation” of a board policy, passed in 2001, that states “Regardless of individual dissent, once the Board has made a decision, each Board member will support the decision of the Board.”
“I think it’s important for the community to have an understanding of what the board thinks,” she said. “But I should also be able to say, where’s what I did, here’s why …
“At the end of the day, if we don’t do that, how does the community know who to elect to represent them?”
Dissension in Denver
Earlier this month, during a Sept. 12 Denver Democratic Party meeting, DPS school board president Mary Seawell found herself arguing against board member Arturo Jimenez over whether the party should endorse the district’s proposal for a $466 million bond issue and a $49 million operating increase.
Jimenez, who voted against the bond issue but in favor of the operating increase, asked the party faithful to explicitly oppose the bond measure in their 2012 campaign literature. Instead, they voted in favor of a resolution supporting both tax measures by a margin of more than 2-to-1, according to party chairwoman Cindy Lowery-Graber.
A couple weeks later, Jimenez attended a debate to be televised on Denver Ch. 8 and asked to give the opposition statement to Seawell’s supporting remarks. Officials refused, declaring the opposition committee, No on Denver 3B, had not formed in time to be included in the debate. The committee registered with the state Sept. 18; the debate was Sept. 24.
“I support people who disagree with something being able to speak out and give their opinions,” Seawell said. “I get that, especially with contentious pieces.”
But a district bond issue, she said, is different.
“It really is about investing in our schools and our students,” said Seawell, who was elected citywide as an at-large board member. “We’re talking about long-term investment in the district, it’s going to outlast all of us.”
Jimenez today said he believes the district could run a better bond next year, one that’s more equitable “demographically, geographically” and modest so it “won’t be a burden to homeowners, particularly seniors and low-income folks.”
“The district needs to create a better plan to spend the money where it’s needed most, not on the elite charters while we have schools in our poor neighborhoods with no modern cooling systems and unclean water,” he said.
Seawell said she and others sought to address Jimenez’s concerns but that, in recent weeks, “he won’t talk to me.”
“If Arturo had spent one-tenth of the time he’s spending on campaigning against the bond working with his colleagues before the vote, we could have addressed his concerns,” she said.
“It’s his total lack of engagement in his elected role that I find most discouraging. Trying to start wars when he can’t take the time to work out compromises is a slap in the face to his constituents and his duty as an elected member of the board of education.”
Opposing “critically needed resources”
Bruce Hoyt, a former Denver school board member who served with Jimenez and who is now the registered agent for the campaign supporting the DPS tax measures, said the conflicting messages have yet to surface as an issue among voters in general.
Jimenez and board member Andrea Merida were the dissenters in the Denver board’s 5-2 vote in favor of placing the bond issue before voters. Jimenez was in the majority in the 6-1 tally supporting the operating increase; Merida alone opposed that measure.
“On something like this, clearly unanimity is preferred,” Hoyt said. “But what I think is important is for people to understand why they would be opposing it … and decide whether that makes sense or not.
“They’re opposing more critically needed resources to help DPS students,” he added. “I think the rationale is very flawed.”
It’s not unusual for Jimenez, who represents Northwest Denver, and Merida, who represents Southwest Denver, to disagree with their board colleagues and with DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg. They, along with board member Jeannie Kaplan, frequently form the losing side of 4-3 votes on key issues of education policy, such as charter schools and shared campuses.
Nor are any of the three usually shy about voicing their opinions. In this case, Merida has made her opposition known via social media while Kapan, who was initially reluctant but voted for the tax proposals, is supporting the measures.
But Jimenez’s active organizing against the district bond measure has dismayed some.
“I think it is tragic that elected board members seem to have confused the need for facilities and programs with a referendum on district instructional policies,” said Gully Stanford, a former State Board of Education member who attended the Sept. 12 Denver Democratic party meeting.
“People are trying to make this a referendum on the district’s policies rather than a vote on whether or not our buildings need to be repaired and replaced and expanded, regardless of the instructional philosophies taking place under their roofs.”
Jeffco’s One Voice Commitment policy
Stanford, who was at times the lone Democrat on a state schools board dominated by Republicans, said he strove to follow board protocol prohibiting a dissenting board member from publicly challenging a majority board decision.
“If you are going to campaign against a majority proposal of the board to which you were elected, I think that’s grounds for resignation,” he said. “My ethic would be, if I feel it’s important enough to try to take down this proposal, then I will resign to do so.”
DPS has no such protocol, written or otherwise, nor has the issue been publicly discussed at board meetings. In Jeffco, Boggs said the board’s policy, known as the “one voice commitment” policy, has been talked about in the context of the current election and she believes she’s adhering to it.
The policy, which was reviewed and revised as recently as May, states individual board members “may express in public that they did not vote with the majority” and the reasons. But it also states those members “may not direct their differences of opinion in a manner which creates polarization or undermines a decision of the Board majority.”
Boggs said, in speaking out, she explains the board’s vote as well as her own decision.
“I do the best I can in the short time I’m allowed,” she said, noting she may describe the board majority’s role and then mimic “taking off her board hat” before explaining her vote.
She isn’t opposed to the “one voice” policy, she said, because “I think it’s important for the community to have an understanding of what the board thinks.”
Is she concerned about mixed messages from board members?
“I think we’re always concerned about what the community perceptions are,” Boggs said, “but I hope what the community understands is the board represents the voice of the community and the community is not in consensus about the tax increases.”