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Denver school board members’ role in elections questioned

Denver’s school board passed a resolution late Thursday governing board members’ participation in elections.

The resolution, which was originally proposed in September, restrains board members from approaching district staff about their participation in elections or from using their position for political gain.

Mary Seawell, the board’s outgoing at-large representative, said the purpose of the resolution was to prevent intentional and unintentional abuses of power in interactions with district staff and to codify board ethics during elections.

“We have influence even if we don’t intend it that could be perceived as threatening and intimidating even if we don’t intend it,” said Seawell. She said the language of the resolution specifically protects members’ First Amendment rights, an issue raised by board members Jeannie Kaplan, Arturo Jimenez and Andrea Merida.

Kaplan, Jimenez and Merida pushed back against the resolution, saying it should have been discussed before school board races started.

Although it was not discussed, the resolution would discourage actions like those recently taken by Kaplan in the heated District 3 race between candidates Meg Schomp and Mike Johnson. Kaplan approached Denver School of the Arts (DSA) principal Bill Kohut to discourage his participation in the election after he endorsed Johnson. The endorsement has proved contentious as both Johnson and Schomp are involved with DSA.

Jimenez, who was not present but phoned in, said it was a political ploy and would empower the superintendent to drive elections.

“I would like to express to my deep disappointment in you [Mary Seawell] and Mr. [Landri] Taylor and Ms. [Anne] Rowe and Ms. [Happy] Haynes for bringing this forward for the purpose of political grandstanding,” said Jimenez.

The specific language of the resolution proved to be another sticking point, dragging discussion out for nearly an hour. Merida believed that the resolution did not sufficiently allow members to exercise their political freedoms.

“There is a distinct possibility that a board member as gung-ho as I am who phone banks could contact a staff member inadvertently,” said Merida. The language of the resolution was amended to reflect that possibility but was not sufficient to gain Merida’s support. The resolution passed 4-3, with Merida, Kaplan and Jimenez voting in opposition.

The full resolution is available here. Bullet points five and eight were stricken and the language of the seventh bullet point amended to specify staff members “in their capacity as district personnel.”

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